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 – Port Vale 2 Oxford United 0

So, for the first time in 17 years we’ve been the victim of a giant killing, the currency of the FA Cup and the ultimate humiliation. Yet, strangely, it doesn’t feel like it.

I love the FA Cup, but not because of us. I love the David and Goliath narrative, the journey into unknown territories for minnows and journeymen, the Wembley set-piece and its universal celebration of a season completed. But this is a football story, not an Oxford United one and I have come to realise that these are not necessarily the same things.

Only in the last couple of years is the Cup something I feel we’ve had much joy from. Swansea in 2016 was an epic triumph in a season of epic triumphs and Newcastle last year a joyous reprise. Before that, beating Swindon and facing Arsenal in 2003 was fun, as was beating Brighton and facing Coventry in 1982, but those highlights were 20 years apart. The story in-between offered very little.

The present never quite has the same effect as the past. In 20 years, we may look back at the Swansea game as part of our FA Cup heritage in the way my dad talks about The Blackburn Game in 1964. But, at the moment, it doesn’t quite have that sepia tinged feel about it.

On Friday, amidst the misery, the Oxford Mail asked Dave Langan what his favourite FA Cup memory was at Oxford; he could only think of his worst (0-3 v Aldershot in 1987). Even during our glory years, it was a competition where we never excelled.

The League Cup was always ours; the results and the significance of those results is what defines it – Manchester United, Arsenal, Newcastle, Leeds, the heartbreak against Everton and, of course, QPR. Some of our biggest moments have happened in that competition, but not the FA Cup.

Perhaps it’s something about night games at The Manor, not only were the results better, but it was a better experience all round than the cold light of day that framed most FA Cup matches.

Plus, of course, nobody really wants to travel to Burslem on a Friday night, that’s enough to take the joy out of everything.

So, although the performance was desperately poor and half-hearted, the impact is somewhat less than it might have been. And, looking pragmatically, we won’t be having one of the chaotic Januarys which has threatened to derail our seasons in the last couple of years.

Weekly wrap – Bradford City 1 Oxford United 0, Oxford United 2 Port Vale 0

As the season peters out, so it seems so does Liam Sercombe’s Oxford United career. According to Michael Appleton, Sercombe is embroiled in a ‘discipline issue’ which he implied is more than just a manager/player falling out.

Sercombe has had a difficult season. He came into it as the first choice attacking midfielder with John Lundstram, but facing better teams meant we needed to become a little more conservative. Lundstram became the playmaker with Ledson providing the defensive cover. It squeezed Sercombe out to the wing where he looked a bit of a spare part in comparison to Marvin Johnson on the other flank.

By rights he shouldn’t even be in the team having been ruled out in November only to return like some kind of bionic man in January. Plus, this is the first time he’s really faced the prospect of being out of contract during the summer. He had been at Exeter since he was a schoolboy and chose to turn a contract down in order to move to us. He’s never been in the position of his future being out of his hands before.

Wembley was pivotal; a late burst of form from Joe Rothwell saw him sneak a starting place ahead of Sercombe who appeared from the bench, with us 2-0 down, like a caged animal. He got our consolation goal; proof that he should have started? He seemed to think so, although it was hardly definitive. He followed up by uncharacteristically re-tweeting fans’ praise about his performance.

We don’t know exactly what the problem is but all this pressure, then, seems to have got to him, which is sad to see. It could be all manner of things; ill-discipline in training, a fight with another player, discussing contract negotiations, bad mouthing those involved. Or perhaps a combination. Or something else.

It seems that 12 months after promotion, only John Lundstram and Chris Maguire (if he stays) will start next season at the club. Both Joe Skarz and Chey Dunkley, along with Liam Sercombe, have stripped their social media profiles of Oxford references and Benji Buchel is sure to move on. If you consider that the last remaining member of the 2010 promotion winning side – Jake Wright – left six years after Wembley, it shows how impatient Michael Appleton is to move the club on.

None of this is great for nostalgics, we all want to believe that eras go on for years and that players are immortal. But even the greats either decay slowly or get sold onto better things. In the modern age things are a bit different; with the exception of Kemar Roofe and Callum O’Dowda, who were subject to lengthy speculation, the promotion squad is simply evaporating with little warning. Last season we packed in a lifetime of achievement, perhaps that’ why it feels like the golden era is passing so quickly.

Sercombe’s contribution last year was immeasurable; Roofe may have stolen a lot of the limelight, but included in Sercombe’s 17 goals there was the equaliser against Swansea and his fabled goal away at Carlise, this season he got the winner against Birmingham, the equaliser away to Swindon and, of course, the goal at Wembley. He may be leaving the party prematurely, but his contribution will be felt for years to come.

In this context, Port Vale was a curious affair, like a game of park football where tactics were set aside for a test of pure ability. As a result, Vale showed themselves to be full of endeavour but ultimately not very good, we showed ourselves to be lacking in motivation but ultimately with too much quality to lose.

Michael Appleton admitted that he had to recognise that there was nothing to play for and that many of the players’ heads were elsewhere. It wasn’t clear when he said that if they were players on the pitch, the bench or elsewhere.

On the pitch it was difficult to see who he was referring to. At a stretch (and it would be quite a stretch) maybe Joe Skarz didn’t quite seem to be on the money but, overall, it looked like a team that was playing without pressure rather than one which was unmotivated.

To some extent, after more than 60 games this season and nearly as many last, it’s a bit of a relief to be able to run the season down free of pressure, but as calming as that feels, it also seems changes, and big ones, are afoot.

Port Vale wrap – Port Vale 2 Oxford United 2

Before Football Manager was Championship Manager. I played the 1993 edition religiously when it came out. I started, as I always do, at Oxford, and signed, as I always do, all my favourite players from the past, regardless of their stats, age or form. Alongside these I’d add some ageing ex-internationals who were affordable, but clearly past their best.

Inevitably my time at the club was short and I moved onto Fulham. There, I found my feet and had a half decent season in Division 3. I speculatively applied for the Everton job and inexplicably got it. With a near bottomless transfer kitty of around £10m a year and the discovery of a Lionel Messi-esque English child prodigy, I went on to conquer English football and then the world.

I would play all night collecting trophy after trophy in a stellar career that lasted into my late-80s (my Championship Manager age, that is). I played so long that the player database kept re-generating players by jamming together first and second names with random nationalities and clubs. So I ended up with players like a Cameroonian international called Diego Shilton and a Frenchman called Steve Gullit. Bored of my ludicrous levels of success, when the Oxford job came up some 40-odd (Championship Manager) years after I left, I took it. But I had no money and it all became too difficult, and though I was biologically in my 20s, in my head and my computer, I was more worried about the state of my digital prostate and my mortality. It was the end of a glorious period.

From time to time I try to recreate those halcyon days by buying a new copy of Football Manager, but the game is more sophisticated now and I have less time so I invariably get frustrated with my poor form and give up.

I know things are going wrong when I resort to the tactic of playing an almost random starting eleven of squad and youth team players in an attempt to stumble across some glorious combination that will catapult me up the leagues.

Sometimes you see real-life managers adopting a similar approach. There was something odd about Michael Appleton’s starting line-up against Port Vale. Sercombe and Skarz were back, Raglan was replaced by Nelson. Johnson was in and Crowley was up front.

Did Michael Appleton’s selection come from a frustration or boredom of our erratic form? We have had a pretty decent start all told but the Swindon win aside our wins this season have come as a result of very (very) late goals. Our general form has been pretty good but the margins of our wins have been paper thin. We can’t rely on last minute winners all season.

So maybe Appleton was throwing caution to the wind, or perhaps it was a glimpse of his original plan for the year. Our early season has been blighted by frustrating injuries; Ribeiro, Nelson, Ledson and Hall. But maybe Saturday was about playing Crowley in a role he’s earmarked for Hall and maybe Nelson’s inclusion was about trying to piece together the back-four he’d always planned to play.

It seemed to work early on; the goals came early rather than deep into injury time, but we still haven’t mastered controlling a game or coping with a more direct physical approach. If there is a plan, then the speed at which we learn to implement it will dictate whether this is a possible play-off season or one which meanders to mid-table nothingness.

The solution is so near, but do far away

I was once at a works leaving do in a pub. IT Bloke, a quietly spoken efficient type, was running a bit late; he was meeting up with his girlfriend before joining us. Nobody had met IT Bloke’s girlfriend; in fact, most people were surprised that he had one.

Now, some girls can be described as being curvy, or stick thin, or big boned. This girl was oblong. Her head was a wide as her body, and she was only about twice the height of her width. What’s more, she looked like a male red indian. The girl who was sat next to me described IT Bloke “brave” for coming out with her.

Such is the magnifying and warping impact of publicity. Although doubt IT Bloke considered himself ‘brave’, there is a part of him that will have been concerned about how other people percieve him. Not because he had a girlfriend shaped like an oblong red indian, but because we all have our insecurities.

Our ineptitude was exposed on Monday and magnified inextricably by the fact we were on TV. It started during the day; for what is one of the more anonymous fixtures in our calendar people were buzzing with excitement for no other reason that we were on telly. During, and then after, the game there was indignation. Some of it justified, much of it a reaction to the fact all our weaknesses were exposed to the nation. As if anyone beyond the Vale and United diasporas would be mental enough to spend two hours watching that game.

As I kept reminding people, we were actually unbeaten away from home in the football league on the TV for 12 years. Which was not a source of blatant optimism, it was just an interesting fact. It was going to end at some point. Away to the 2nd place team in the division with an injury ravaged team in poor to average form had ‘record-gone’ written all over it.

The end of that dubiously defined record crashed around our ears in spectacular fashion. We opened neatly enough, but that’s us at the moment; full of neat players who knock the ball around nicely, but can’t be relied on in a shit fight.

We’re missing two key components. After we conceded we there was nobody bullying the team back into action. Billy Turley, who has recently debuted on Twitter, tweeted that he would have been bawling at his back-four back into life. As easy as it is for former players to criticise the current crop, Turley’s right, Ryan Clarke can’t be relied on to shake things up. Jake Wright is a good leader, but he seems more effective in a stable environment. When we went a goal down we needed someone to shake us up a bit. In fact, we’re demonstrating a naivety that was evident in our first season back in the league. We leaked points through defensive lapses; a problem that was initially plugged by Paul McLaren and then last season by Michael Duberry. We need that kind of experience now.

The other problem, which was exposed on countless occasions, was a lack of pace. Myrie-Williams poured down the wing over and over again. And much as pace is a rare and valuable commodity, we have nothing that compares to that raw speed. Liam Davis is as close as we have, and he’s still in the treatment room.

The Sky analysis seemed surprisingly informed at first, until you locked into the fact it was basically commentary by Opta stats. One fact that was repeated over and over was the number of goals we’ve conceded from outside the box. An unfortunate sequence of conceding world class goals? Or a lack of defensive grit in midfield; who is closing the attacker down? This certainly seems to be the view of Chris Wilder. It’s not a bad call. Which means that the return of Andy Whing to shore things up cannot come soon enough.

The day that football gave up

Was the 5th May the day football gave up?

The FA Cup Final has, for 140 years, been the finale to the football season; a gathering of the football clans in a final sun-blissed celebration of the season’s end. This year it was driven into the margins of an early-evening kick off for no obvious reason while the Premier League largely carried on regardless. Even the Football League couldn’t be bothered to maintain the facade of solidarity with the Championship finishing a week earlier than Leagues 1 and 2.

For the second time in three years the final was punctuated by faux controversy, which lead the resurrection of the tiresome push for goal line technology. Andy Townsend lead the charge exasperatedly calling for the football suits to get with the programme after Petr Chech clawed Andy Carrol’s header from his goal with minutes to go. This ignored the fact a) the ref had made an entirely correct decision and b) the apparently full-proof technology was largely inconclusive. At least Clive Tyldesley tried to gently move the argument on by reminding everyone (for that, read: Townsend) that the whole of the ball had to cross the whole of the line. Which, it clearly hadn’t.

Earlier at Vale Park, despite briefly having the play-offs back in our hands, we followed the apathetic trend. Chris Wilder’s team selection smacked of defeatism with the likes of Capaldi and Craddock appearing to start for no other reason than giving them game time before the season’s end.

The whole season has been like falling down a steep hill. At first we were in control, then we lost our footing; just as we felt we might be able to stand up we’d be out of control again. In the end we just had to hope that when we did eventually come to a halt that all our limbs would be in tact.

By every objective measure this season has seen progress on last year. More goals, less conceded, more points, smaller gap to the play-off spot, more advanced season tickets. More qualitative assessment suggests Chris Wilder’s approval rating is falling, although I’d question anyone judging him on the last 8 games rather than the last 46.

The speed of progress is the main debating point. Should we have been promoted this season? If the club’s stated ambition is to be in the Championship in five years, then we’ve certainly put pressure on that ambition by not nailing at least one promotion in the last couple of years. But it is hardly a lost cause, two promotions in three seasons is possible, just. The question is; will Kelvin Thomas get spooked by the current bluster? No chairman is going to be brought down by his manager, and Ian Lenagan isn’t going to risk his investment or his ambition waiting for success.

I wouldn’t blame Wilder for walking, but I doubt he will. I’d be equally surprised to see a knee-jerk from Kelvin Thomas; the debate on Wilder’s future amongst fans is far from conclusive, so while there’s support there’s a mandate. A more reasoned argument suggests that Wilder has another year to get us up. I’m not really one for setting concrete targets; but with League 2 set to be a more level playing field next season and three years of development in the squad; it’s probably not unreasonable to conclude that without at least the play-offs this time next year, it would make Wilder’s position a very difficult one.

So, we lie collapsed at the bottom of our hill. We’re battered and bruised and feel a little defeated. Football seems a bit of a waste of time, but it won’t be long before we’re back on our feet, climbing that hill ready for another tumble.

Oxford United 2 Port Vale 1

As I walked down a decrepit Belfast street with a Sheffield United supporting colleague last Tuesday, conversation inevitably turned to Chris Wilder.

Me: ‘The constant fear is that they [Sheffield United] will take Wilder”
He: “They probably will next time. It’s the sort of stupid sentimental thing they do”
It’s true, Chris Wilder may well be lured to a bigger club, Mickey Adams certainly thinks he’s capable. He’ll probably end up at Sheffield United or a similar ‘big club’ basket case. At this point one of two things are likely to happen. He’ll either buckle under the deep seated historical failures of his new club or he will bring them moderate success and become a member of the small cabal of managers who constantly swap places amongst the lower Premier/upper Championship pseudo-elite – Sam Allardyce, Steve McCLaren, Mick McCarthy et al. He will not be offered a position which gives him the security or resources to bring genuine trophy-led success to a club. His legacy will be his moderate success at a moderate club. His time at Oxford, to the vast majority, a mere footnote. 
We won’t forget. Saturday’s 2-1 win over Port Vale was the convergence of all that Chris Wilder has achieved in the last three years. There have been bigger games such as the play-off final against York or the win over Swindon, and bigger wins such as Bristol Rovers and Plymouth. But those were champagne moments, this was the bread and butter humdrum of the league and he turned it into something special.
He’s made having 8,000 people in the stadium feel normal. That’s about 3,000 on the gate since he arrived. Extrapolate that over a season, and he could easily be generating the club an additional £1.5 million a year at the turnstiles.
With this he’s put together a team that inspires front to back, all of which were evident on Saturday. Ryan Clarke’s penalty save was an absolute marvel, you couldn’t have scripted it better. Michael Duberry is a revelation in his performances and his attitude. His goal – his first in English goal since 18 October 2005 – was a joy . Jake Wright got involved with a brilliant suicide block in the first half followed by a triple sliding tackle on the edge of his box in the second. Paul McLaren’s set the tone, battling for the ball whilst sitting on his backside. On the half way line. In the most ordinary of league games, this was the most extraordinary of league games.
Then there was Peter Leven’s goal. I’ve seen similar goals from the halfway line on TV and written them off as either a fluke or relatively easy. On TV it’s tightly cropped and two dimensional. The commentator announces it removing the surprise. The player has worked a bit of space, all he needs is a bit of line and length and a hapless keeper hopelessly out of position and he’s in. In the end, all you’re doing is looping one over his head. How difficult is that?
In reality, it’s very different; let me break it down.
Part 1: The context – We had conceded a couple of minutes earlier. Port Vale are a good side, the jolt of the goal and the rabid reaction of the Vale fans had us on the back foot. With our confidence dented, there was a real risk of throwing away points in a game where we’d created an avalanche of chances. The natural reaction is to be conservative and edgy. Any misplaced pass or skewed shot was likely to trigger derision from the home fans, then fear and finally, quite possibly, defeat. Leven, however, was thinking beyond this bucked the natural law by looking towards the audacious.
Part 2: The vision – Football is played to a certain geometry. There were a number of conventional options once Leven had won the ball; play-in Constable or push it wide to Hall or Potter.  Or maybe a little side pass to Heslop, who had the time to look up and choose the best option.That’s the text book approach. In conventional football, there is very little positive about the ball traveling 50 yards, 12 feet above the ground. This is a plain in a football arena reserved for defensive clearances. So, Leven defied the laws of football physics by making a creative, attacking and purposeful move towards the goal from 50 yards beyond head height – that’s vision.
Part 3 – The opposition – The goalkeeper is a real living, breathing opponent. He doesn’t just let the ball go over his head and shrug his shoulders, he back tracks and reaches and stretches. In short, he’s there to be beaten, not just lobbed over.
Part 4 – the maths – The ball has to remain at a height beyond the reach of the keeper as he’s back tracking, that must be 8-10 metres. But it can’t be too high because it’ll need to dip if it’s going to go in.
Then it starts dipping. Once you’ve got your head around the idea that he’s gone for goal, you start calculating the probability of it actually going in. When the ball leaveshis boot, the calculator clocks it at about 10% likelihood of actually going in, once it’s beaten the keeper it’s gone up, but only to 20%. It then starts its descent and the probability clock starts whirring madly; 25%, 30%, 35%, 40%, 60%, 80%. This. Might. Actually. Go. In. You hit 100% certainty a millisecond before the net ripples. 
There’s vision, precision, uncertainty and geometry. And Chris Wilder has brought this and more to the club, along with Duberry and Wright’s bullish defending, Heslop’s long range bullets, Constable’s goals and Clarke’s world class goalkeeping. When he is slogging away, getting hammered for not taking some deadbeat ‘sleeping giant’ into the Champions League, we will always remember that, and be thankful for what he has brought to the club, if you ever need a reminder of what that is, watch Saturday’s 90 minutes. It will tell you everything.