Match wrap – Oxford United 3 Morecambe 1

I’m reading Andre Agassi’s autobiography at the moment. It’s quite a shocking read; from the first page Agassi is unequivocal about how much he hates tennis. It’s not just that after a long and successful career he’s done with the pressure and injuries, he’s hated it since the first time he picked up a racket. 

His father decided that he wanted his children to be professional tennis players and set up a tennis court in his back garden. He re-engineered a serving machine to fire balls more quickly and at a difficult angle for Agassi to return. As a young boy, he was hitting a million balls a year and hated every single one of them.

It also made him very good, of course, and it’s clear that as he got older he had the beating of anyone he played. Even if he went a set down, he knew when he would win barring injury or something freakish happening, because he had absolute control over his ability.

The book illustrates the divide between how sport is portrayed as a mythical endeavour full of talent and passion, and the technical aspect which really determines whether you’re good or not. Agassi was never that interested in the mythical aspects – he never dreamed of winning Wimbledon, it didn’t drive his desire to improve; that came from his over-bearing father.

As fans, we buy into sport for its drama and passion – the romance – even though it’s technique that determines how that manifests itself. It’s like watching a film or a play, you become absorbed in the story, but you wouldn’t be able to do that unless the actors knew where to stand and what to say when.

There was a familiar vibe during the win over Morecambe yesterday; a warm appreciative atmosphere and a fluid and attacking display. There’s been a lot of talk about the atmosphere this season and how it lacks a certain passion. But, I think what we’re seeing is the team and fans in absolute equilibrium. It’s not arrogance, but the team know what they need to do to beat a team like Morecambe and we, the fans, have absolute confidence they’ll do it.

It’s not always been like this; in fact, it’s rarely like this. During the promotion season in 2016, there was an asymmetry between what was happening at the club and what was happening in the stands. We were almost shocked to see an Oxford team playing with such style and panache. I remember after the win over Swansea, feeling immense pride at how grown up we seemed to be, how un-Oxford.

Most of the time, it’s been the other way around; we sing that ‘we’re by far the greatest team the world has ever seen’ while being taken to the cleaners by Rochdale or Scunthorpe. The asymmetric relationship between what we think we are and what we actually are creates the tension that creates the atmosphere – which could be misery and frustration or elated shock and relief.

If you watch the very best teams playing at home, the fans trust the players to do their job and the players trust their ability to deliver. If it goes wrong, that trust extends to allowing the team to fix the problem. Yesterday, we got a bit sleepy in the second half, Alex Gorrin’s ability to break play up wasn’t needed as much as someone to control the midfield and create some forward momentum. We missed the penalty and then conceded, but Marcus McGuane came on and we regained control of midfield and got back on the front foot to complete the job. Nobody was screaming at Karl Robinson to ‘sort it out’ or for the team to ‘wake up’; we kind of knew he would.

Afterwards Robinson spoke about preparations for the January transfer window and how he wasn’t particularly looking for another striker because it’s unusual for mid-season signings to score lots of goals. There’s usually a call from fans for multiple signings, usually including a striker, and Robinson himself has been prone to having an unreasonably long wish list. It’s borne out of an anxiety that the squad won’t be able to cope, it takes confidence to say that he’s largely content with what he has.

How long we can maintain this blissful equilibrium is, of course, another question, but it’s not a flash in the pan – Robinson looks visibly healthier than he did when he started at the club, the ground and pitch looks smarter, even if it is a bit of a ‘lipstick on a pig’, the squad looks deep and lush. If Brannagan isn’t available, Gorrin can come in, if that isn’t working, McGuane is available – we’re not robbing Peter to pay Paul when we make adjustments to the side.

We could, of course, slip into becoming arrogant and entitled, forgetting the technical application or getting frustrated when teams don’t comply with what we want. It’s something you see at Manchester United at the moment where there’s an expectation that they’ll compete at the highest level because, well, they’re Manchester United.

They say it’s harder to regain a title than win one, but in the lower leagues it’s even hard to maintain stability for a whole season. Teams capitulate quickly with a couple of bad results, fans aren’t used to the feeling of success or how to regulate their expectations. We’re like a lottery millionaire unable to handle their new-found riches, quickly squandering what we have. 

This is particularly hard for us, a club which has had instability built into it for years, one that hasn’t seen a season-long period of superiority over a division for thirty-six years. We’re not yet title contenders, but we could be starting to readjust our expectations given the start to the season we’ve had. The trick is to not chase too hard, not adjust our expectations too much, to chug away picking up points and not getting too carried away with where it’s taking us.

The clocks have gone back, the nights are drawing in, the weather is getting worse, Christmas and the January transfer window is looming and the FA Cup starts next week to disrupt the fixture flow. Mission accomplished for the opening period of the season but this is where the real test begins. 

Midweek fixture: The 17 best games of Oxford United’s 2016 promotion season

A long time ago, I asked for your favourite games of the 2015/16 season, then the pandemic hit and everything went belly up. That season had everything – derby wins, giant killings, a Wembley visit and, of course, promotion. There was a lot to choose from, but vote you did. Here are the seventeen best games from that unforgettable year.

17. Morecambe 2 Oxford United 4

A hard won away win in a lovely kit, apart from that, it’s not obvious why this was such a significant game. But, if you’re in the pub, a job interview or hostage situation and someone asks what was the 17th most memorable game of the 2015/16 season; this is it.

Read the match wrap.

16. Oxford United 2 Hartlepool 0

Had it really come to this? After the derby, Wembley, giant killings and all the winning, we were faced with the prospect of three games and three wins for promotion. This was the first, Joe Skarz returned from what was thought to be a season ending injury to help drag us to three points against a stubborn Hartlepool side. One down, two to go.

Read the match wrap.

15. Oxford United 3 Exeter City 0

An absolute Boxing Day banger, in front of a near capacity crowd, we put on a breathtaking second half attacking display to sweep away Exeter City.

Read the match wrap

14. Bristol Rovers 0 Oxford United 1

All good teams need a magician to make them great; ours came in the form of Kemar Roofe. His early season wonder-strike at Bristol Rovers was just a sign of things to come. The Roofe was on fire.

Read the match wrap.

13. Stevenage 1 Oxford United 5

Sometimes, everything just clicks. When the club designated the game at Teddy Sheringham’s Stevenage a family away-day special, they couldn’t have hoped for a better game than this 5-1 annihilation. It was the first time in nine years we’d scored five away from home and was, at the time, a record equalling away victory. One for the record books, but more importantly, one for the kids.

Read the match wrap.

12. Oxford United 0 Millwall 1

Sometimes games are less about the performance and more about the result. The atmosphere was ugly, the game was tense for this JPT Semi-Final Second Leg against Millwall. All we needed to do was protect our 2-0 first leg advantage. A 1-0 defeat made things uncomfortable, but still meant we were heading for Wembley.

Read the match wrap.

11. Barnet 0 Oxford United 3

The season turned into a farewell tour of the clubs we’d considered equals for a decade or more. This dominant display at Barnet with two goals from Callum O’Dowda had a strong ‘we’ll never play you again’ vibe about it.

Read the match wrap.

10. Portsmouth 0 Oxford United 1

Roofe, Dunkley, Hylton, MacDonald, Wright, Baldock, Lundstram, Maguire – the list of great names from that season live long in the memory – Skarz. See? Was Jordan Bowery the great forgotten player from that season? Maybe. With JPT, FA Cup and league interests, things were getting hectic. A trip to Portsmouth looked daunting, but Bowery’s second half winner secured a memorable and crucial three points.

Read the match wrap.

9. Oxford United 2 Barnsley 3

Wembley; the JPT Final was a true game of two halves. In the first 45 minutes we were, by far, the better team and went in 1-0 up with a goal from Callum O’Dowda and a Cruyff turn from Chey Dunkley. In the second half we came out heavy legged and conceded three. A Danny Hylton goal pulled it back to 3-2, which wasn’t quite enough. But, what a day out.

Read the match wrap.

8. Crawley Town 1 Oxford United 5

We needed this; after two frustrating league draws and a defeat at Wembley, we just needed to give someone a good pummelling. It’d taken nine years for us to score five away from home and five months to do it again. Crawley, it was nothing personal.

Read the match wrap.

7. Millwall 0 Oxford United 2

Days after knocking Swansea City out of the FA Cup, we headed to The New Den for our JPT Semi-Final First Leg against Millwall. After the Lord Mayor’s Show? Not a chance. Two giant killings in four days? Yes please.

Read the match wrap.

6. Brentford 0 Oxford United 4

There may have been a good feeling around the place, but the obliteration of Championship Brentford in the League Cup ignited the season. The opening was rampant with Oxford three up inside 15 minutes, including a wonder strike from Kemar Roofe, Johnny Mullins’ second half goal saw us stroll to a 4-0 win.

Read the match wrap.

5. Notts County 2 Oxford United 4

New Year, New You. The first game of 2016 was at a grim Meadow Lane. What resulted was a titanic tussle with two breathtaking last minute goals.

Read the match wrap.

4. Oxford United 2 Swindon Town 0

The Kassam Stadium can feel like a soulless concrete brick, but when Oxford’s Ultras unveiled a giant flag of an ox impaling a robin which stretched from the top of the stand to the bottom, it felt like the Curva Sud. We were absolutely dominant for this JPT derby; two Kemar Roofe goals swept Swindon aside in a true changing of the guard in the rivalry.

Read the match wrap.

3. Carlisle United 0 Oxford United 2

Did someone order a Family Bucket of limbs? The penultimate game of the season saw us 270 miles to Carlisle and owner Daryl Eales dishing out free hot dogs. Chris Maguire’s early penalty was a settler, but it was Liam Sercombe’s trademark surge into the box which cemented this as the third best game of the season. Now, where have my shoes gone?

Read the match wrap.

2. Oxford United 3 Swansea City 2

When you’ve got Premier League opponents; keep it tight, see if you can nick a goal. Right? Wrong. Despite conceding early, we put on a scintillating display of attacking joie de vivre to sweep away Swansea City in the FA Cup. If we didn’t know something special was happening before, we did now.

Read the match wrap.

1. Oxford United 3 Wycombe Wanderers 0

The pinnacle, the denouement, the culmination of a wonderful season, the sun shone, the crowds came, promotion was won. Chey Dunkley physically, emotionally and psychologically broke the deadlock, Chris Maguire made it certain, then it was over to the local boy Callum O’Dowda to weave his way to an injury-time third. For O’Dowda, Jake Wright, Danny Hylton and Kemar Roofe, it was their last appearance in an Oxford shirt. A magical spell had been broken.

Read the match wrap.

Morecambe wrap – Morecambe 2 Oxford United 4

Danny Hylton said after Tuesday’s disappointment that we had to dust ourselves down and carry on as we have been doing. Against Morecambe we did just that. The Shrimpers have now taken one point from their last 18, so you might have reasonably expected three points, but as every week, you’ve still got to go out and win them.

The win puts us six points clear and a game in hand on fourth placed Wycombe. Technically, Accrington are our biggest threat being seven points behind and two games in hand. The gap is important, not just because of the buffer but also because of the mindset of those below us. While there are six points between us and fourth, there are just five points between fourth and eleventh. That tells us two things; nobody below the top three can sustain a challenge, but more importantly, the teams involved are in such a dog fight that they will be starting to looking down and around them rather than up.

Think if we were in a similar position to Bristol Rovers or Wycombe, you might still hope for promotion, but in reality the prime objective is to stay in the play-off places. Plus, as the season progresses, they will have less influence over the top three and more over the eight that they’re tussling with for the play-offs.

Looking at our fixtures towards the end of the season, there are many more Morecambes than there are Northamptons, so everything is falling into place. Cool heads is what is needed now. That includes concerns around our first choice goalkeeper. Slocombe had a nightmare against Mansfield, although he also pulled off a world-class save which has been almost forgotten. I’m not convinced that Buchel would have faired much better, he’s not exactly a dominant presence when balls are launched into the box, but the move from Appleton is also a message to the team that a drop in standards won’t be tolerated. With Wembley places to win, that’s a reasonable incentive to keep focussed. Above all, however, we shouldn’t fret about what we haven’t got, we are perfectly well equipped for promotion, let’s focus on that.

Tuesday is an interesting test; we don’t need to win, but obviously if we do it will put us in an even stronger position. It’s Chris Wilder, which still has a bit of edge to it. I think we could be facing them at a perfect time, their run of wins has to be closer to ending than it is beginning (unless you believe they might go 14 straight wins in a row and are therefore the best League 2 team of the last decade). Small fissures of complacency and over-confidence will begin to creep in at some point, bad luck will hit in all the wrong places. It has parallels with with the Swindon game in ’96, let’s hope it has the same result.

Coming up: Morecambe

The drop

Nothing to worry about, not yet at least. If you look at the table, you’d say we were comfortably in third, four points clear with games in hand. What’s more, there’s not a great deal of form amongst the teams directly below us. Mansfield, who seem to have surged up the table recently, have only won 5 in 10. Wycombe have lost four in six.
All the form in the division is being absorbed by Northampton who have taken 36 points 42. Which is where the pressure comes from. The Cobblers are our guests on Tuesday, and we could really do without going into that with the perception of being off-form. 

Old game of the day

Morecambe wrap – Oxford United 0 Morecambe 0

Former Oxford United sports boffin Alistair Lane thinks most English footballers perform at about 60% of their true capability. That’s partly because managers and coaches are under-supported, under-funded and have low job security. As a result, rather than taking risks and finding ways of transforming performance to succeed, it’s easier to focus on not failing. You see the same thing in the public sector, for the same reasons.

Look at the transformation of Gareth Bale when he joined Real Madrid and a year later; the product of coaching and sports science. Or maybe drugs? It might be drugs. Obviously there’s no problem with drugs in football, I’ve no idea why I even mentioned it.

Anyway, the self-limiting effect of this under-investment in coaching was evident on Saturday. The mindset, not the quality. Their long-term ambition could be more grand, but generally speaking Morecambe will be satisfied remaining a stable lower-league club. A point was always going to be acceptable against us. They were there to take what they pragmatically needed. It’s not as if they had any fans to entertain.

This is being organised and professional, not negative or cheating, it’s just the reality of life. We’re going to face a lot of these teams and if we want to get promoted, then we’re going to have to find ways of working around the conservatism.

The Roberts thing continues to rattle around as the proposed solution. The argument goes that Hoban and Taylor haven’t worked, so you might as well throw him in to see if he can win the game. But, the fans should ask if they’re happy with going for the win even if it means increasing the risk of losing. That’s more likely to be in Appleton’s thinking.

The Radio Oxford phone-in was hysterical with the draw, imagine if we’d lost. You can read our form any way you like – 1 defeat in 17, 3 wins in 9. It’s far from a crisis, but what is undeniable is that following the light-hearted context setting of the opening games, we’re now into the grim reality of the season proper. The draw with Morecambe puts pressure on the York and Accrington games. If we are to challenge for promotion, we need a formula to win more of these games or that pressure will become unsustainable.

Plan B?

When we opened the season with four consecutive league defeats and without a win in nine, there were those who applauded the style, if not the results, that Michael Appleton was trying to produce. The more sceptical pointed out that not only were the results not coming, that come the long winter months, the weather would ensure that things could only get worse.

The quality of pitches this season seems to have become more of an obsession than in the past. Perhaps it is because of the ubiquity of the lush, green carpets of the Premier League that we have come to believe is the norm. Maybe it is the product of extreme weather resulting from global warming. Maybe it’s the London Welsh obsession, although the obsession doesn’t seem limited to the state of our pitch. Maybe it’s a hidden product of the economic downturn where clubs are cutting corners to save costs.

Certainly the expectation that pitches should be green and lush throughout the season is a modern phenomenon. In the 70s and 80s, rutted, muddy pitches in January and February were the norm, it became a great leveller that ensured FA Cup giant killings were more likely. Football, perhaps, wasn’t viewed through the filter of the aesthetic, as it is today, but instead through one of dour pragmatism. It was less important that a game was good and played the right way, more important that it simply happened.

Some seem to be under the odd illusion that lower league players cannot play football on grassless pitches. And that this is at the heart of our problems; because the quality of pitches is awful, we cannot play our way. On the contrary, this is surely much more of a norm for most of them.

Michael Appleton applauded his team’s ‘combativeness’, ‘organisation’ and ‘professionalism’ in the draw against Portsmouth. All terms that wouldn’t have been out of place in a Chris Wilder post-match interview. Incidentally, for those who don’t track this kind of thing, Mr Wilder, with his dull, defensive football, is currently at the helm of the division’s leading goalscorers, the boring sod.

Like last year’s memorable 4-1 reverse, the occasion of the Pompey game probably overstated the result on Saturday. Away draws at Morecambe or Wimbledon – teams directly above and below Pompey – would have been considered solid results rather than some something akin to a win. The 12th Man of Fratton Park is probably the complete opposite at the moment as the visitors thrive on the novelty while the hosts whither with fear. Something we know about only too well.

Organisation and combativeness are both qualities that take you far in League 2, particularly on pitches which won’t allow the ball to run true. It has become more evident in our game in recent weeks and it seems little coincidence that Jake Wright and Ryan Clarke, amongst other warrior types, have finally found some form. It seems that they are relying on their instincts and strengths – honed on the awful pitches of League 2 and the Conference – rather than obsessing over playing the game the right way.

Is this the emergence of a Plan B? A conscious move away from the FA’s training text book towards the cold realities of the lower leagues? Appleton is not clear on the matter. My instinct would say that it’s a happy accident, although the signing of the lanky target man Armand Gnanguillet might suggest otherwise. The key is whether Appleton will learn from this year’s experience or stick pig-headedly to the philosophy. Will he be fooled by the return of beautiful lush turf come August?

Morecambe update
I have some sympathy for Michael Appleton after the draw against Morecambe. This ‘trench warfare’ football never looks good when you’re losing. We were far from outplayed, as we were against Shrewsbury, Wycombe and Southend, and in the end the same performance could easily have produced a defeat, a win as well as the draw we got.

The problem he has is what got us here in the first place; too many signings, too much rhetoric, too many false dawns and corners turned. People were quick to jump on his pre-match comment that this was the group of players he wanted all along. That was a daft comment – similar the ‘no plan B’ statement at the start of the year – which was always going to come back to haunt him.

Because he is so backed into a corner with his previous statements about not being one for compromise, it’s difficult to know whether he is genuinely learning from this season’s experience – as it appears on the pitch – or whether, as his interviews seem to imply – he’s blind to the realities of what he’s dealing with.