Midweek fixture: FA Cup 2nd Round memories

There’s no such thing as a good FA Cup 2nd Round game; it doesn’t have the anticipation of the 1st Round, nor the prospective glory of the 3rd Round. Although sometimes it’s OK.

2018 Plymouth Argyle 2-1

2018/19 was a difficult season, particularly on the road; we couldn’t buy a win until late in the season. There was a grim inevitability about our trip to Plymouth in November. Or was there?

2013 – Wrexham 2-1

After a delayed 1st Round game at Gateshead, we faced Wrexham just four days later. It looked like we might end up on the end of a giant killing until James Constable sparked a revival.

2012 – Accrington Stanley 3-3

So much more than a game. After it was announced that former Oxford player Mitchell Cole had died from the heart condition, we headed to Accrington Stanley for a tie which just wouldn’t let up. 2-1 down with four minutes to go, 3-2 down 2 minutes into injury time, then Michael Raynes popped up at the back post. A game of pure spirit. Afterwards Chris Wilder was absolutely magnificent.

2002 – Swindon Town 1-0

OK, sometimes the second round can serve up something special. Swindon Town visited the Kassam for the first time in 2003. It was Jefferson Louis who stole the show glancing home the winner. Then he immortalised himself in Oxford folk lore being filmed naked live on TV while celebrating our third round draw with Arsenal.

1995 – Northampton Town 2-0

A couple of weeks after beating Dorchester 9-1 in the first round, Northampton came to The Manor. The win catapulted us forward to a memorable cup run and, in the league, promotion.

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.

The wrap – Northampton Town 0 Oxford United 0

Following a tumultuous week, a reassuringly dull draw.

Let’s start at the top. There will be few club owners held in higher regard by fans than Darryl Eales. He affected a revolution at Oxford which dragged us into the 21st Century and left a legacy of promotion, Wembley, derby wins and giant killings. Perhaps even more.

There were significant barriers to overcome including fan suspicion (including my own) and the perpetual challenge of Firoz Kassam, but he did so, successfully and with integrity. And that’s not something you hear related to owners of football clubs very often.

I suppose the reality is that most owners have limited capacity to improve a club. Ian Lenegan could get us out of the Conference, but not out of League 2. Darry Eales got us out of League 2, but not out of League 1. If you can move us forward 20 places or so, then you’re doing well. The trick is to hand over to someone with similar values, but also the resources to take us on.

Enter Sumrith ‘Tiger’ Thanakarnjanasuth and the least surprising takeover in modern history. Several months ago, when Tiger started to appear in the directors’ box at the Kassam, the Oxford Mail ‘investigated’ foreign ownership. They concluded that sometimes it was good and sometimes it was bad. It’s almost as if the foreignness of any owner is not what defines their success.

The suspicion of foreigners is something the new owner will have to overcome. Fans were quick to jump on his accent and his sometimes confused rambling during Monday’s press conference. There have been some pretty grim stories of foreign owners – Portsmouth, Blackburn – and some obvious successes – Bournemouth, Leicester City – but, there is an underlying mistrust. Any wobbles we might have will be looked at, by some, as a sign of the owners nefarious intentions in a way that it may not be with a British owner, even though there have been plenty of catastrophes created by British owners. Positioning himself, as Eales did, as a benign benefactor rather than an all-controlling overlord will certainly help win the trust of fans.

His immediate challenge, of course, is the manager, although if he does announce Craig Bellamy, it will be the second least surprising announcement of the season. Bellamy will come with the baggage of his playing days and unless he affects an immediate upturn in form, that may be a tough barrier to break down.

Then, if Tiger is going to hit the ground running; a focus on putting in place plans for next year has to be a priority. This is, perhaps, the easiest bit – a lot of the infrastructure already exists, it’s a question of how much more money you shovel in.

Onto the big stuff; every owner since Firoz Kassam has put the stadium purchase at the heart of their plans. It still seems the most obvious way of moving the club on from relying on an increasingly rich series of benefactors who will bring success through deep pockets and boundless energy.

The question is, can it be purchased? Nick Merry, Ian Lenegan, Darryl Eales and OxVox have all tried and failed. Kassam keeps playing the barely credible ‘for the good of the club’ card when it comes to who he might sell to. Is a Thai billionaire with few roots in the club, city or country more credible than those who have passed through previously? Unfortunately, I don’t think so. Kassam appears completely happy to sit on the asset – perhaps as punishment for the club, but more because it’s probably worth more as a brownfield site fit for development than it is as a football stadium. The only real option for Tiger is to offer him an eye-watering amount of money to leave.

Option 2 is to move elsewhere. It took 30 years to move from the Manor to the Kassam, so that’s no easy feat. That said, football is good for politicians in a way that it hasn’t been in the past, and there’s an increasingly established business model about using stadiums to stimulate investment, so finding a site is likely to be less problematic than in the past. But still, it’s starting from scratch and that’s an expensive and slow process.

And then there’s the ‘other’ option – whatever that might be. Plenty of clubs outside the UK rent rather than own their stadium, and perhaps there’s another way forward to put the club on a sustainable footing. Tiger’s first press conference implied that there was another way, but there’s little doubt he failed in all aspects to articulate what that was.

The initial impression of Tiger wasn’t great, but he’d literally walked off the train to his first day in a new role and he was speaking in a language which isn’t his first. Early attempts to write him off are unreasonable, he needs time to formulate and fully implement any plan. His subsequent, calmer, considered interview with Radio Oxford shows there is substance behind the bow tie. Writing him off as some chaotic, eccentric outsider is unlikely to bring success.

Oh Sol, amigo

One consolation for the protracted search for a new manager has been the bizarre sideshow of Sol Campbell’s application. In the tiny betting market for the Oxford United manager’s position, the mere mention that Campbell was in talks with the club served to shoot him up the list of favourites.

It was, of course, way off the mark. Despite their silence, the club are probably dealing with agents and applicants constantly. Being ‘in talks’ may just have been a courtesy call.

Campbell appears bamboozled by the mechanics of the job market and because he doesn’t understand how getting a job works, he’s reverted to his playing record and chutzpar as ‘one of the best brains in world football’ as a battering ram to get people to take a chance on him. It’s such a childishly crass way to operate he’s simply doing himself more damage. It is a curious bargaining position to suggest that lower league clubs should take a punt because it’s not difficult and what harm can it do? The reality is that smaller football clubs lose more through bad decision making – at the top it might be losing out on a place in Europe, further down you risk losing your very existence.

What he fails to see is that the best managers start at the bottom and work their way up – Jose Mourinho was Bobby Robson’s interpreter long before he started winning Champions League titles, but we tend to err on the idea that there is some innate genius, a gene that Sol Campbell claims to have.

More than ever, club coaches are following career paths not dictated by their playing reputation, but Campbell doesn’t seem to be bothered with all that and just views the lower-leagues as an easy version of the Premier League. A stepping stone to immediate success.

Yes, everyone has to start somewhere and they do need a bit of luck to get that start, but empathy, which Campbell seems to spectacularly lack, is at the heart of all success. 

The wrap – Oxford United 1 Northampton Town 2

Suddenly, so much to cover.

Off the pitch
Starting at the top; no corporate takeover discussions were ever improved by a running commentary for the benefit of East Stand season ticket holder Dave, a plasterer from Wantage. Fans have no formal right to know what is going on with ownership discussions. You might argue that there is an ethical right, and I would agree, and I think that should be formalised by giving football clubs a special status which affords financial and tax benefits in return for greater fan and community control. But, that’s not where we’re at now.

So while we have no right to know, what is it that fans expect to hear? Darryl Eales’ confirmation of what we already know? That Sumrith Thanakarnjanasuth has been at a few games and they have, self evidently, had discussions? Do we want to know the detailed nature of those discussions? Do we want to agree whether Eales should sell or not via a Twitter poll? What exactly would we be planning to do with that information, even if we understood it?

The truth is, unless a key milestone has been achieved; there is nothing to say. Discussions are just that, part of an iterative dialogue where there is a tacit understanding that the conclusions may end up being significantly different to the start point. You’re either in them wholly, or out of them, it’s not a spectator sport. Take the Sartori episode, discussions started with a general understanding that there might be a deal and concluded that there wasn’t one, updating on the to-ing and fro-ing in between would have been beyond de-stabilising.

But what about Mr Thanakarnjanasuth and his credentials? He may not be right for us. All club owners are a double-edged sword. As the Paradise Papers show, if you’re rich, you tend to be good at acquiring money; avoiding tax and getting rich. This is abhorrent to those of us less capable. There should be rules in place to control the avarice, but they don’t appear to be adequate at the moment. The point is, no owner has ever made money simply by taking a reasonable wage home, they’ve taken a risk and got a reward. Darryl Eales, Ian Lenagan, Firoz Kassam, Robin Herd, Robert Maxwell, all had their successes, and all had their, sometimes significant, failings. Mr Thanakarnjanasuth will be no different, if you are waiting for a wholly ethical, straight up, benevolent billionaire with no question marks over his character to take us over, prepare yourself for a long wait.This is the bind of success, until we change the system, we’re just going to have to suck it up.

In the stands
Fans do not have any right to be applauded; if only a handful of fans turn up to a game, they are celebrated for their amazing effort, if loads turn up, they are celebrated for their amazing numbers. Fans are always in the right, as judged by the fans. Players, on the other hand, are right when they win and wrong when they lose, as judged by, well, the fans. If fans walk out 10 minutes before the end, as they did on Saturday, or boo, as they did on Saturday, then that is their right, according to the fans.

I know you stayed to the end and applauded and screamed until your head throbbed, I know you haven’t slept since the final whistle, but we’re not talking about you, we’re talking about the collective force that is ‘The Fans’. And, while it might disappoint you hugely, The Fans are not a singular feverish hoard, they don’t pulse with a great seething anger, you cannot divide them into those who are like you (and therefore proper fans) and ones who are not (and therefore not proper fans). Fans are a mixed economy of people and the club is far healthier for it.

Insisting that the players applaud The Fans, when The Fans boo and walk out on the players, is a form fan fascism, as is fans insisting that other fans behave to some predetermined template. When we lose, the players are not punishing the fans by not applauding, they are probably consumed in their own frustration, their thoughts clouded by their own exhaustion. Fans, it is not necessarily all about you.

On the pitch
Pep Clotet is not failing; he’s made a better start than Michael Appleton did. And if you argue that he’s had more to work with, you’re probably right, but he’s also had a better start than Michael Appleton did last season, which is as close as you’ll get to a like-for-like comparison.

Football matches are not won by passion. They are not won by talent, luck or form. Football is full of a language which implies that it is reliant on magical powers. Application, technique, preparation and organisation wins games. On Saturday, people were lambasting the lack of passion, only one caller to Radio Oxford picked up a genuine tactical concern – whether Rob Hall and James Henry should swap wings allowing them to cut inside and cross the ball rather than to shoot. This is a tactical and organisational observation which deserves reasonable analysis. The players’ passion is not.

The problem, as I see it, is that we are currently struggling to organise as a unit; throughout the first half, Rob Hall could be seen pointing down his flank wanting the ball in front of him so he could run onto it. But the ball didn’t come and the play moved on. Ryan Ledson tried too many hail-Mary passes to get things moving, when he should have been playing calm simple passes that moved the play forward. His reaction to the first goal was to smash the grass with his hand in frustration. A sign that he was not functioning in a calm dispassionate and therefore effective way. Watch any good team, even when their backs are against the wall, and you’ll see they rarely deviate from their trusted template because that’s the most likely way of winning rather than doing something extraordinary.

So, if Pep Clotet isn’t failing, but we’re suffering from a lack of organisation, what’s driving that? I would say it’s injuries. We have a constant rolling programme of players entering and exiting the treatment room, the latest being Curtis Nelson. As such, the organised unit on the field is constantly having to adjust the way it does things. The squad is too new to have a clear pattern of play, a DNA, and it will struggle to develop one when the core is constantly changing.

Do we have an abnormally high number of injuries that will, by the law of averages, eventually even itself out? Or is there something in the way we play or train, or select or treat players which results in more injuries than in previous years? This is worthy of analysis.

While this run is frustrating, we are far from failing, throwing blame around from takeovers to managers to the players is simply a distraction from solving the problem. Tactical discipline, better injury avoidance, and above all, clear heads will see us progress.  

Weekly wrap – Northampton Town 0 Oxford United 0, Oxford United 5 Bury 1

When Donald Trump tried, and failed, to repeal Obamacare, he found it largely impossible to do. The problem was that the bill was structured like a tower of building blocks. If you took one from the top, it just produced a slightly less tall tower, if you took one from the bottom the tower would fall down completely. As a result, repealing the bill was too radical for some, not radical enough for others. Brilliant.

Sunday’s EFL Trophy Final to some a non-event, to others a low priority, but it might actually be the building block which might define the season. What does that do to your moral compass?

After Saturday’s non-event against Northampton, the game against Bury threatened to be a peculiar one. Five days before Wembley and with only an outside chance of the play-offs, it was difficult to predict which team would play let alone how they would react. Why throw yourself into challenges and risk missing Sunday? Why play your game changers when you need them fresh for the big stage? As our ninth game of the month, fatigue was always likely to be a problem.

Certainly the crowd seemed to take the week off with it being the lowest we’ve seen in over a year. The atmosphere was sleepy, those who did turn up seemed to be there out of a sense of duty rather than anything.

Bury came off the back of some solid form, avoiding relegation is the only thing they have to play for. With some application and a bit of organisation, they could have picked us off, which would have left us further adrift of the play-offs and with doubts going into Wembley.

However, they contrived to put on a display as inept as any team we’ve played this season. If this was an illustration of their ability they would struggle in League 2. Passes went astray, shots ballooned into the night’s sky, organisationally they were hopeless and their discipline was completely absent.

It was a non contest as we cut them to ribbons. If we’d scored seven it wouldn’t have been a surprise. It was the perfect pre-Wembley fillip, an opportunity for those who have struggled with form and fatigue to gain a bit of confidence. But, with results going our way we also suddenly found ourselves  just four points off the play-offs.

I’m not quite sure how; form this month has been pretty moderate. Two games in a week has looked too much for our small squad. But somehow we’ve negotiated our cluttered agenda and come out the other side with the season in tact.

So, to the weekend and what seemed like the least important game of the season might just be the most important. Ultimately, it’s a play in two parts; first, Saturday’s results have to go our way. If by 4.45pm we’re still within sight of the top 6, then the whole perspective on the season changes. Part two is Sunday; firstly, because it will get the distraction of Wembley out the way, but also the objectives for the season become clearer – either the play-offs are on or they’re not. If we win on Sunday, that might just give us the boost we need to propel us through the final stages of the season. Suddenly what might be the most innocuous building block of the season becomes critical to its success.

Northampton wrap – Oxford United 0 Northampton Town 1

Christmas is a great roosting of families. People gathering to spend a day in an enclosed space veiled in an unnaturally consistent, artificially heated, climate. At first, there’s the gathering of the flock, a sense of togetherness, a sense of fellowship and well-being. But then, there is a point, usually signalled by the first sprouty burp of Christmas dinner, where you crave for the fug to be blown away by a chill wind, the increasing need to re-engage with the world beyond your living room, away from the constant call of food and drink. That release, for many, comes through football on Boxing Day.

As a result, the crowd at Boxing Day football is an unusual one; young women in those wooly hats with oversized fluffy bobbles neutrally coloured with matching gloves, the older brother back from London comparing the Kassam to when he watched a game from a box at Stamford Bridge, visiting friends in wonder at the novelty of it all, over-excited children suffering separation anxiety from their new X-Boxes. It is the only day of the season where you will see middle-aged women handing round a pocketful of Celebrations swiped from the bowl in the living room before leaving.

For season ticket regulars, we host the party. When I’ve taken friends to a game on Boxing Day, I become the font of all knowledge. Can I get tickets? What time to leave? Where might we park? Do we have time for a drink before the game? In return, I display Jedi-like knowledge of every movement and twitch around the ground – “There’s Martin Brodetsky” I’ll say with a flamboyant wave in his general direction. My guests respond with a deferential nod as though I have accurately identified a rare sculpture by Alberto Giacometti.

I wouldn’t swap it for anything, but football without context is just a really erratic sub-genre of the entertainment industry. The families who come as much for the fresh air as anything expect a win. But football doesn’t work like that; it’s like watching an over of a test match and expecting it to decide the result of all five-days’ play.

Last year I came with a friend who purred at what he was watching; Baldock, Roofe, Lundstram, Sercombe and an Exeter team in abject form being thrashed around like a whale killing a seal. This year’s game against Northampton was never going to be like that, no team in League 1 is going to be turned over like that, at least not by us, not at the moment.

As the minutes ticked on and the game petered out, people began to drift away. Even at half-time there seemed to be a glut of vacant blue seats that weren’t there in the first 45 minutes. It was clear the ‘show’ wasn’t delivering what was expected. But, this isn’t pantomime, you can’t guarantee that the Aladdin with marry a princess. When they scuffed in their last minute winner, it signalled a cue for a great exit and within seconds the stadium looked like it did at a mundane fixture during the barren League 2 years. Only the regulars remained.

Inevitably, some conflated the rumblings about stewarding and flags and Darryl Eales’ ‘hard-hitting’ programme notes with an evident downturn in form. In truth, they were pretty average but got a lucky break. None of this was helped by the fact it was Northampton; the target of Michael Appleton’s hilariously indefensible statements on us being ‘statistically’ the best team in the division last year. He’s wrong, of course, not that I would trade anything we achieved last year for what they achieved. It just made it a more galling defeat, but it was no more signal of our imminent collapse as the previous eight games undefeated was a signal we were going up.

Boxing Day football blows away the cobwebs of a Christmas party hangover. It feels like 2016 has been one long party at the club. Everyone has got a bit tired and emotional and the hangovers are kicking in; perhaps we just need 2017 to come to start afresh.