George Lawrence’s Shorts: Parker, Pens

Saturday 24 August 2019

Like your gran after she’s eaten her bodyweight in Turkish Delight, there was some pretty obnoxious Gas around on Saturday. The club put on extra security for Matty Taylor’s return to his former club, Bristol Rovers. Fantasies around Taylor’s return turned out to be just that as he limped off after half-an-hour and we went down 3-1

Monday 26 August 2019

Like a railway announcer during autumn leaf fall; KRob has pinpointed why we’ve gone 3 games without a win – the wrong kind of goals. Our problem is that we’re scoring great goals, not scruffy ones, ‘if you take away the goals, we dominated’ he said possibly ignoring a key aspect of professional football.

Tuesday 27 August 2019

Oxford entertained East London millennial snowflakes Mi’Woh in the Type 2 Diabetes Cup on Tuesday. After going 2-0 down, two super-late goals from Jedward orphan Mark Sykes and James Henry forced the game to penalties which were won by Jose’s son John Mousinho who broke the net to settle the tie. They didn’t like that, but they don’t care, though they really do, because they’re actually very sensitive.  

Wednesday 28 August 2019

Dean Saunders is a former Oxford United goal machine turned TalkSport shock jock – the shock being how little he knows about football. On Wednesday Deano followed a well trodden path for Oxford goalscoring legends like Steve Anthrobus and John Durnin by being sent to prison, this time after refusing to take a breath test when stopped by the police. Saunders is appealing the decision on the grounds of diminished intelligence. 

In less incarcerated news, The Type 2 Diabetes Cup draw had an extra shot of insulin in it when we drew bubble-based buffoons We’stam at home in the next round

Thursday 29 August 2019

Former Leicester City player and Kidlington local Garry Parker, has been appointed Head of Setting Up The Reserves To Play Like The Opposition. The new role will be a blessed relief to Parker, who – if his club photo is anything to go by – got lost on a holiday trek through the jungle wearing just shorts and a pair of flip flops this summer only to be found looking tired and bewildered by local tribesmen.

This year’s Tsun Dai Remind Me Why We Signed Him has been announced as Kash Siddiqi. Siddiqi is a 33-year-old Pakistani international who will instantly be sent out on loan and forgotten. A sub-continental Tony McMahon. 

Friday 30 August 29

Tomorrow sees the visit of Coventry City in which Oxford are hoping to break a losing league streak longer than Jimmy Hill’s chin. Meanwhile in last night’s Six Minute 29 Second Fans Forum on Radio Oxford it was Tiger who came to tea. On the stadiumsituation nothing has changed since the club were asked about the stadiumsituation last week, but Mr Chairman did imply another signing might be on his way.

Match wrap: Oxford United 2 Millwall 2 (Pens: 4-2)

Despite the group behind me and their Sunday League tropes of ‘Travel!’, ‘Drop!’ and ‘Whose tracking?’ last night’s Carabao Cup game was a benchmarking exercise. As such, it revealed something curious about our squad.

The test was not just playing a better team but also a referee applying some kind of subconscious ‘Championship tariff’ – where decisions are based on a presumption that lower league players are more likely to mistime tackles and make fouls, more likely to fall over through their own incompetence than through someone pulling their shirt. We shouldn’t be surprised; we’ve seen it all before. 

I went to the game feeling neutral; I wanted us to win, but wasn’t that bothered if we didn’t. On the other hand a defeat – the fourth in a row – would create tensions we didn’t need. You can say a game doesn’t mean anything, but it always does.

The result was encouraging because we were more conservative. This may have been deliberate; Sam Long knows his role, Elliot Moore could focus on his job of being physical and blocking things. Nobody expected Kevin Berkoe to bomb on and make chances, so he had time to check his positioning and get used to the pace of the game.

We were calmer and more patient; less eager to please. We didn’t want to concede, there was no attempt to win the game in the first 10 minutes. We weren’t scintillating going forward, but we had chances, as did they. They could have scored, we should have had a penalty. There was the odd cat call for a thirty yard cross-field ball out of defence or for Jamie Mackie to somehow gain an extra yard of pace, but overall we actually benefited from being a little slower and a little weaker.

In the league we’ve started at a frantic pace and have fallen away, last night we started more moderately and accelerated. Just after half-time they simply accelerated more quickly – as better teams do – just as you think you’re matching them, they apply greater pressure. 

By the second-half they were better but not by an unexpected margin; had we left going down 2-0 in the League Cup 2nd Round to a Championship team, it would have been disappointing but expected and forgettable.

When they accelerated, they were faster to the ball, attacking with pace; strong and direct. We want to aspire to being like that. In midfield Shandon Baptiste, was in control early on, but started to feel the pace as the game progressed. We weren’t quite chasing shadows, just finding it harder to get a foothold and a way back into the game. We battled valiantly, which is all we could ask, but at 2-0 it was all over.

Or so we all thought; an injection of quality in James Henry and Ben Woodburn brought more pace and craft, and gradually we reclaimed parity. First in quality, then in goals. On paper, two-goals in the last three minutes sounds thrillingly exciting, over 90 minutes, it was just about what we deserved. 

The penalties aren’t a lottery; the better team always tends to win. Perhaps it was their shock and our elation, but our four kicks showed focus and composure; a discipline that’s been missing in recent weeks.

Whether the patience was deliberate or enforced is hard to tell. But, it worked better than our all action first-choice style. It feels like we have better strength in depth than last year, but without Gavin Whyte, Marcus Browne, Curtis Nelson or (latter season) Luke Garbutt our first choice seems weaker. We don’t have the control or the game changers, at least not yet. As a benchmark, that’s where we seem to be today.

It gives Karl Robinson a dilemma; should he sacrifice style and flair for results? Keep Sam Long and his discipline, but lose Chris Cadden and his pace? For me, to get some traction into our season, we need these results more than we need the style, but can Robinson curb his urge to please?

Millwall wrap – Millwall 0 Oxford United 3

The last few games of the season feel a bit like the crew of a Navy frigate going on shore leave. We stop off at a port – Port Vale’s fight against relegation last week, Millwall’s push for the play-offs this – carouse around visiting the whorehouses and gin joints without much of a care for the long term consequences we might leave behind.

It’s fun to play without consequences, particularly when it results in emphatic wins that put other peoples’ noses out of joint. How many times have we had end of season visitors to the Kassam where we’ve got an outside chance of promotion (or avoiding relegation) only to have our hopes dashed? It’s nice to turn those tables once in a while.

It feels slightly different to the 2014/15 season where we ended with a similar flourish. Then, particularly as a result of the form of Kemar Roofe, it felt like we were on the verge of something new and exciting. This time, it feels more like we’re at the end of something, although quite what it is  is difficult to ascertain. Players who have served us well look set to leave, our best players are likely to be subject to transfer interest, Oxvox may even be ready to announce plans to buy the stadium and effectively release the club’s potential as a business. We might even have new investment that catapults us into the Championship.

Or not.

Which brings us back to the shore leave analogy. Is this just the reckless end of season party which brings to the conclusion an intense tour of duty or the sign a we’re just a couple of signings from being promotion contenders next year? Will we return to our loved ones for a couple of months before joining up again for another adventure or will we never see each other again?

Talking of which, Saturday was completed with the confirmation that Swindon are going down and Leyton Orient will start next year in the Conference. I just don’t understand the Orient animosity, the fact that they were promoted on the day we were relegated from the Football League in 2006 was nothing but happenstance. They were dancing on our pitch to celebrate their success, not to rub our noses in it. Our failings were firmly in place before that game.

On the other hand, it’s kind of nice to see Swindon suffer for a while. The signs have been there for a while, they’ve have looked absolutely terrible when they’ve played us over the last couple of years, so it’s little surprise to see them struggling. Their bizarre ‘mates together’ management structure, which seems to involve Tim Sherwood taking all the responsibility and their coach taking all the blame, screams failure. Knowing what we know about failing teams and just how hard it can be to pull up from that kind of trajectory, Swindon’s relegation could genuinely signal the end of our derby meetings for years to come. How bittersweet does that feel?

Millwall wrap – Oxford United 1 Millwall 2

On Saturday night while with friends, the Sam Feldt version of Show Me Love came on the stereo. If you’re not familiar with the name, you’ll know the tune. It’s the one that was played last season during the players’ presentation. It stirs the emotions; a reminder of a magical time, the best season we’ve had in my lifetime.

I miss last season, although that’s partly because I know how it turned out. What makes it even more remarkable is that the season before that was so dismal. As bad as any in my lifetime. Most managers wouldn’t have survived such awfulness, in fact, I’m pretty sure we were the lowest placed team in the division not to sack our manager that year.

It took a brave decision to stick with Michael Appleton, but it worked spectacularly; a two-year plan that came good.

This season has been fitful, nowhere near as bad as Appleton’s first year, nowhere near as good as his second. But are we just at the start of another two-year cycle?

I’ve always thought that Appleton’s preferred system is a team that moves the ball around quickly creating chances for a big unit up front. The principle is that if that unit doesn’t score, he creates enough mayhem to allow the midfield playing around him to pick up the pieces.

Going right back to the loan signings of Carlton Morris and Tyrone Barnett, Michael Appleton has constantly been in the market for a goalscoring lump. Ryan Taylor and Danny Hylton did it to some degree last season, but we’ve yet to find a sustainable solution. He’d have loved Paul Moody.

The performance against Millwall was, generally, pretty good; 64% of the possession, 12 chances to their 7, 9 corners to their 2. But they were more direct and more efficient in front of goal. As a rule, we do everything right, but we’re just not quite up to it physically – more muscle upfront and we’d be there, I think.

Whether we’ll sort the striking issue out before the season peters out is another question. We’re about to enter a particularly fractured phase in the season; last year between the 1st Round of the Cup and our semi-final second leg against Millwall in February we played nearly as many cup games as we did league games. Will we be able to get a settled team with so much disruption in the schedule?

While we’ve spluttered a bit so far I suspect, like Appleton’s first year, we’ll start to see the shoots of what he’s hoping to achieve from February onwards. If, as he suggests, there are 14 teams looking to put a run together for the play-offs, then we might still have a late surge. More likely, this season is simply going to become a foundation for next.

Millwall wrap – Oxford United 0 Millwall 1

Up until the last quarter of an hour on Tuesday I couldn’t quite decide whether I wanted us to win or simply to avoid screwing it up. This isn’t an unusual feeling for me, I lost the idea of winning as a target a long time ago. Winning is just a by-product of avoiding humiliation.

There was a bit more to it than that. We’re a happy club these days, we do positive things and try to enjoy ourselves. Millwall are a club built on misery and anger; ‘No one like us, we don’t care’; if you extrapolate that to its logical conclusion and they achieve the goal of no one liking them, they wouldn’t exist. It makes you wonder whether they support their club or whether it just happens to be a convenient prism through which their anger about life can be channelled.

It’s not fair to tar everyone with the same brush, of course. I’m sure there are many nice and friendly Millwall fans, as a team I thought they looked good and I’ve always liked Neil Harris, but if there was a reason to win the tie it was to show that being positive is better than being negative.

Tactically we were much more astute than against Blackburn. We absorbed their attempts at gaining an early advantage and played our way into the game. Alex MacDonald, not a player you naturally think of as a leader, was magnificent both in terms of his play, but also the way he calmed everything down, including the ballboys who he felt were returning the ball too quickly.

This had a hugely positive impact on Jonjoe Kenny who seemed to grow up in front of our eyes. His cameo on Saturday was all nervous and jelly legged, which lead to a clumsy foul and a booking. On Tuesday, in almost the same situation, just moments from the end, when the pressure was at its peak, he momentarily looked like he was about to lunge in again. Instead, he stood up, timed his tackle perfectly and picked the ball off the toe of the oncoming attacker. If he can keep it up, then the loss of George Baldock may not be as keenly felt as we thought.

So, a risk-free trip to Wembley beckons; a celebration of what the club has achieved and become, a reward for everyone, on and off the pitch, in the stands and the board room. A reward for positivity. These are special times.

Coming up – Millwall

The drop

Wembley? Well, yes. It’s hard to imagine a scenario a more relaxed way of getting there. It’s the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy, we’re at home, we’re 2-0 up. Without getting too complacent about it, you could almost rest some players and be reasonably confident about getting through.
This isn’t bragging or complacency, it’s the simple fact that the JPT is a bonus. Defeat will, in the long term, be forgotten, victory gives us a big day out.

Old game of the day

Millwall wrap – Millwall 0 Oxford United 2

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If I’m honest, I thought this would be the one when the wheels fell off. In an already extraordinary couple of weeks, off the back of an extraordinary 8-9 months, everything about the Millwall game was, well, even more extraordinary. I thought that, temporarily at least, the sheer force and velocity of our development and trajectory would blow us to bits. In the same way that a Formula 1 racing car is the most powerful, expensive, high performing car in the world but has tyres that last less than 40 miles, I thought this would be the point at which we’d be destroyed by our own power.

Four days after beating Swansea and becoming media darlings, on a Thursday, two games from Wembley, away to a League 1 team; I thought the frailties that have caused these players to drop into League 2, which have been so hidden all season, would show just enough for Millwall to exploit. Surely at some point tiredness; mental, technical and physical, would kick in.

But, and I am running out of ways of describing us at the moment, we were brilliant. Again. To have expectations heightened to the level they were and then meet and exceed them is mind blowing. And the fact it’s us is more astonishing still. It’s not just the application and heart, it’s the craft and creativity. It’s where we were this time last year and where we are now. And, and, AND, it’s the way we’re doing it; there’s no billionaire investment, these aren’t players lured to the club by endless riches. We’re not, in short, financially doped.

But also, this isn’t just about the result, this might just be about keeping the squad together. When Roofe’s first goal went in, I could see him leaving in the next three weeks, when the second one did, I changed my mind. Roofe, O’Dowda, Lundstram et al now have something beyond the transfer window to work towards; the opportunity to play at Wembley. They won’t get that by moving up the divisions. That and the opportunity to progress in the FA Cup, and promotion, and to do all this together as a squad. They will become club legends.

Moves to bigger clubs and the riches that come with it might well be in their future, maybe even this summer if they keep this up, why the hell would you want to move now?