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

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

2009 Jamie Cook versus Luton

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

2012 Peter Leven versus Port Vale

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

2013 Alfie Potter versus Portsmouth

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

2014 Nicky Rowe versus Wycombe Wanderers

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

2016 Liam Sercombe versus Carlisle

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

2017 Toni Martinez versus Middlesborough

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

2018 Ryan Ledson versus Charlton

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

2019 Jamie Mackie versus Bradford

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

The wrap: Oxford United 2 Portsmouth 1

There’s a clip on YouTube of our game against Portsmouth at Fratton Park in 1984. The pitch is like a potato patch, the ball sticks in the puddles; at one point stopping us from scoring and the players’ shirts are caked in mud, hanging off them all sodden and shapeless.

It’s football as I love it; the kind that people who don’t like football don’t understand. Nowadays, games aren’t like that, pitches are better so there’s less need to hack your way through a sea of mud. But, January still has its moments. One was on Saturday.

The game was dogged rather than beautiful; on the wing in front of the South Stand you could hear the players’ boots slapping on the bare patches of turf. There was nothing lush or green about it.

The game itself illustrated my theory of the season. Portsmouth are top, but they’re not the unerring machines of previous table toppers such as Wigan or Sheffield United. In any given 90 minutes, pretty much anyone can beat anyone.

Despite howls of protests all week about players coming in and out, the squad Karl Robinson put out looked somehow neater, there were options on the bench and experience to bring on, if needed. I heard someone say that most other clubs in the division would love players like Eastwood, Nelson, Whyte, Browne, Brannagan and Henry. They would; and many of the others would be of interest.

The truth is that on the pitch we’re not a bad team. Portsmouth played into our hands by being direct and immobile. It’s quite something when Jamie Mackie is outpacing a full-back on the wing. When they did play from the back, it pushed our midfield into our back four and we looked more vulnerable, but while we kept our shape we were rarely threatened.

There’s little doubting the commitment of the players. There’s the obvious lack of options up front, which has been acknowledged by everyone, but otherwise we can compete. Karl Robinson can be a hugely frustrating character, but I don’t think he always gets the credit he deserves.

The problem is that in a division of margins, it’s the details that the make a disproportionate difference – the training ground is still not quite finished, the HMRC issues keep coming, we’ve got players doing stupid things and recruitment is patchy.

The recruitment mistakes of the summer – Smith, McMahon, Norman and Holmes are being sorted. When I say mistakes, I mean for one reason or another they didn’t work out, I’m not apportioning blame.

Tiger was on Radio Oxford after the game trying to explain the HMRC problem. It followed some good stuff from OxVox over the last couple of weeks. If I understood it right, moving money into the country is not always easy. I read somewhere that the government has made this harder in recent months partly as a sanction against the Russians, but also to reduce the risk of fraud and money laundering.

So, the flow of money is not as plentiful as we’d like. While the HMRC bill is predictable, unexpected expenses on the training ground have made it difficult for the club to come up with the cash when it’s needed. A bit like knowing you’ve got your Council Tax bill in a week and your car breaks down and needs fixing. It’s not the tax that’s the problem per se, it’s the unpredictable nature of our cashflow. The tax is the ‘victim’ of that problem.

I don’t think there’s ‘no money’ as some have hysterically claimed, it’s just not flowing as freely as it needs to at the moment. Tiger insists that it’s all fixed. Once the training ground is finished, many of our expenses should be more predictable, but we’ll see.

What we’ve learned is that to give up on this team is a mistake. This was my kind of football, a great atmosphere, grim weather and a gritty victory against the team at the top of the table. In true Oxford style, in the worst week of the season, the best result.

Games of Note: Portsmouth

12th August 2017 – Home 3-0

Pep Clotet’s first home league game, fresh off the back of an opening day win over Oldham. Clotet introduced Gino van Kessel to the show to score a wonder goal. A result to propel us to the Championship? No, not really.

23rd January 2016 – Away 1-0

2016 and things were getting real. We were pushing for promotion, heading to Wembley in the JPT, we’d just beaten Swansea in the FA Cup. Could we keep our league form going through such hectic times against one of the biggest teams in the division? Jordan Bowery has the answer.

3rd August 2013 – Away 4-1

Perhaps the greatest opening day in our history. Portsmouth had been re-born as a fan run club after years of turbulence. They filled Fratton Park with optimism. We came for the sun and the larks. Nobody had banked on Alfie Potter.

14th August 1993 – Home 3-2

A good game, if not a great game, but one in which you’ll be reminded just how good a player Chris Allen was, particularly when the pitches were good and the sun was shining.

3rd November 1992 – Home 5-5

There are people who weren’t born in 1992 who still claim to have been at this all time classic. There are people who were there who still stay to this very day stay the final whistle just in case it happens again. 3-5 with a minute to go? Do you beat the traffic, or wait for a miracle?

The wrap – Portsmouth 4 Oxford United 1

Inevitably, after Saturday’s defeat to Portsmouth, someone on the phone-in reached for that standard explanation for any failure – NO PASSION. 

Passion, like ‘springboards’ and ‘momentum’ are mainstays of any fans’ explanation of form. Granted, it may be an alternative word to ‘application’ – the need to actually put effort into something – but ultimately, passion won’t win games. There are about 7,000 people who passionately follow Oxford United every other Saturday – they are invariably useless at football.
So, what’s going wrong?
Inevitably, after the Portsmouth result, Michael Appleton’s name was being wafted around – after all, the guy is unemployed, can’t we just go and get him and return to 2016? 2016 represents modern-Oxford’s high watermark, its benchmark, it’s our safe, happy place.
Indeed, 2016 is helpful in providing a reference point to analyse most things related to the club, but to simply want to go back there is unrealistic and therefore unhelpful.
So, where did it go so right?
Firstly, let’s not forget, the Eales, Ashton, Appleton revolution took a year to materialise. 2014/15 was as bad as 2015/16 was good. While they were getting things right, there was a lot that went wrong  including losing our first four league games (sounds familiar). At most other clubs, Appleton wouldn’t have been given the time he was to get things right. 
Second, there was funding – Darryl Eales had money, which he could access and was prepared to spend. He was close enough to the club’s operations to ensure that the money, when needed, was available. Players, infrastructure, marketing – it wasn’t so much about the amount of money that was spent – though that was inevitably a factor – it was more about the speed at which it could be accessed. 
Third, Mark Ashton was an aggressively proactive chief executive. I confess, I didn’t particularly like his schtick – especially in the early weeks. However, I briefly worked with someone who worked at a senior level with London Welsh who described Ashton as a ‘nightmare’ because if he wanted something, there was nothing to stop him getting it. He may have been a nightmare, but he was our nightmare.
And finally, we had a manager who understood the mechanics of modern football. Good scouting, sports science, short-term process goals, marginal gains. Whatever you want to call it, Appleton understood it, not only that, he studied it. He was given an unusually long time to get it right – but without that no manager would have achieved what he did with us. Even media-gobshite Robbie Savage admitted that new Arsenal manager Unai Emery will need at least three transfer windows to get things right, that’s 18 months. Time most managers aren’t given.
So this is, broadly, the formula we aspire to. Simply saying let’s go back there seems an unlikely option – Darryl Eales had the funding to get us out of League 2, but a sustained challenge at League 1 seems unlikely. Mark Ashton and Michael Appleton’s reputations place them squarely in the Championship – like many of the players they signed. We are simply too small for them at the moment.
Karl Robinson inherited quite a mess when he joined the club. There was the wreckage of the Pep Clotet experiment, coupled with a 10 week delay in getting his appointment over the line, in addition to Tiger’s takeover. By this time we were in a relegation fight. You could argue that Robinson has had five months to get things right, but he was firefighting for a lot of that time. You could argue that the clock really only started when he secured safety last season, not when he joined.
There appears to be funding; Tiger has invested and in a lot of the right areas – training ground, youth set-up and the first team squad. Marketing has improved, including the strategy of building stronger links with the city; you may feel that town and gown shouldn’t mix – but in terms of attracting investment, it seems ludicrous that we don’t try to trade off the city’s global reputation.
The problem seems to be the speed at which things happen. The training ground isn’t finished and the club is living a nomadic life as a result, alongside this, signings have come in late. This is where I think there’s a real weakness. For Mark Ashton’s aggressive ambition, we now have Niall McWilliams – a largely silent, passive managing director. Is he demanding progress and funding, is he ‘the nightmare’ we need to get things done? It won’t be wholly his fault; only Tiger has access to Tiger’s chequebook, but the link between managing director and owner seems far too loose at the moment.
Which brings us to Karl Robinson. You sense Robinson’s frustration that things are zipping along as he’d expect. Is it an excuse? Maybe, but I do get the sense he knows how to manage a football team. But, like Appleton before him, he needs the environment to be right to thrive. At the moment, it’s not broken, it’s just not functioning properly. He said as much on Saturday – they just have to get through this phase and things will improve. The risk is that players stop buying into the way of working and we find ourselves in another relegation fight.
The good news is that it can’t get much worse. We won’t lose every game and concede a bucketload for the whole year. The infrastructure, management and players are more than good enough to climb the table. What we don’t know is what normal is from this squad. For everyone’s sanity, the sooner we find out the better.   

The wrap – Portsmouth 3 Oxford United 0

The good 
For the first hour before everything changed, we looked good. Very good, even. Napa was probably over-eulogised by the TV commentators as the new messiah we’ve ALL been talking about, but he looked bright and caused enough problems. James Henry playing off the front two works well and we should have gone into the break at least even.

The bad 
After the opening goal, my overriding thought was that we are a top eight team that can’t defend, and that’s what makes us a lower-middle table team. There are two principle reasons for this – Chey Dunkley and Curtis Nelson. Both were an immense physical presence in the back-four last year, which we’ve lost. Rob Dickie looks good on the ball, but lacks physicality – as was evident in the first goal. John Mousinho’s last two games have been solid, but he lacks pace and is a shadow of the legend we supposedly signed from Burton. They’re probably the best pairing available, although I’m not alone in wondering why we let Charlie Raglan go to Port Vale.

The ugly 
The game turned, quite obviously, on the penalty and the resulting dismissal of Alex Mowatt. It illustrates the thing I absolutely despise about football. It was a high-pressure moment, had the ball gone a millimetre to the left it would have gone in, a millimetre to the right it would have bounced out and the players would have been pre-occupied by the rebound.

Mowatt was clearly frustrated by the margin of his error, Nathan Thompson clearly elated. Both acted instinctively in their reactions. There were 17,000 people showing similar emotions and yet the two most involved were supposed to control theirs. The result was unsavoury, but neither player was in any genuine physical danger. But, because the rules say so, Mowatt was dismissed for violent conduct.

There are rules in football which have been created to deal with particularly elements of the game which are not conducive to its spirit. The offside rule was invented to prevent goal-hanging, the penalty box to stop players unfairly preventing goal-scoring chances. Violent conduct is clearly to stop people getting hurt.

In all three cases, the rules has been ‘gamed’, players will battle for the ball to get in the penalty box, but collapse on the fall at the merest touch, offside traps are set 30-40 yards from goal.

What Mowatt did wasn’t violent in the sense that Thompson was in any danger. If you see the physical punishment of boxing, ice hockey or rugby, it’s clear that Thompson was a long way from being seriously injured in the incident. I don’t blame him for his reaction immediately after the ball bounced off the post – it was the equal and opposite reaction to Mowatt’s. But, because he knew that violent conduct has been denigrated to ‘raising your hands’ he gamed the system by falling on the ground as though he’d been hit square on the jaw by Roberto Duran. It’s a reaction so deeply ingrained in football, it makes a mockery of its original purpose, and that should be a wake-up call.

We expect players to play with passion and commitment – the whole game is sold on it – but at the same time, act dispassionately and with detachment even in its most extreme moments.

As a result, not only did we lose the game, it degenerated as a spectacle at the moment it had reached boiling point and we’ve lost Mowatt for three games for what was little more than a light push. Plus, Mowatt is expected to act with deep remorse and everyone should fall in line with sanctimonious lines about how ‘you just can’t do that’.

The solution, in this case, is an adjustment to the law by adding something about having a clear intent to harm, and empower the officials to make that judgement. Sure, book players for being a bit silly and to defuse an argument, but sending him off and banning him is a ridiculous penalty for something so minor.

We’ve lost sight of the original purpose of the violent conduct rule, and as a result what we have is a pantomime in which players have learnt certain behaviours to use it and advantage their team. In this case, falling to the ground as though shot. A small adjustment to the rules, rather than expecting the players to act like robots, would improve the game significantly.

Portsmouth, Scunthorpe and Shrewsbury wraps

In principle, I agree with Darryl Eales in that it seems ridiculous to have a transfer window that drifts into the first month of the season just as teams are settling themselves for the campaign ahead. Closing the window on the last day of July would make a lot of sense, but it would also shorten the close-season, particularly if you factor in international tournaments and friendlies, and would probably push negotiations into the back end of the previous season, which potentially disrupts your run-in. So it’s not a panacea.

There seems to be a certain inevitability about Marvin Johnson’s departure from the club, it seems just a question of where and for how much. The charade demonstrated best before the defeat to Scunthorpe with the club making claims that he was all set to play before withdrawing him with a ‘tight hamstring’. Afterwards Pep Clotet played it straight by sticking to the facts and saying that Johnson remained an Oxford player. It sounded defiant and forthright, but in reality, that offered nothing new.

There’s been a growing frustration around the club’s transfer policy. We are led to believe that being a ‘selling club’ is a bad thing. For some, this simply reinforces the narrative that Darryl Eales has no ambition. Now, you may not like the fact that we’re in the habit of losing players to bigger clubs but it is how we work, and it is working. From Kemar Roofe’s money we’ve bought Marvin Johnson and from Marvin Johnson and John Lundstram’s money we’re in a position to buy Gino van Kessel or others, should we want to.

There are three ways in which football clubs function, they can enjoy the benefits of a rich benefactor who treats the club like a hobby, you can live a precarious life, selling on your debt from one owner to another, or you can put in place the infrastructure that buys assets – players – develops them and sells them on at a profit. It’s pretty much as sustainable as a football club gets until TV money kicks in. If you want to see what it feels like to get this wrong, just look at Portsmouth’s recent history. I would rather sell Johnson than go through what they are going through.

Part of the disquiet is not so much about losing a talented player, but what it supposedly says about us as a club. It’s basic economics; when you buy something, part of the value comes in utility or use you get from it. Part of the price is buying something which says something about you. A Ferrari and a Ford Focus will both get you from A to B, but a Ferrari says you’re successful in the way a Focus never will.

The same goes with selling, we’re losing a player which subtracts a certain amount from the abilities of the team, but the fact that we need to sell is as much about us admitting that we’re not in the same bracket as those who buy from us, it makes us feel weaker. The truth, if we can put aside bruised pride, it does seem that we’ll gain more than we’ll lose when Johnson goes.

Fans’ frustration at the lack of resolution around Johnson are probably not being wholly fair on anyone involved. For the clubs involved there are terms to agree, not just agreeing a fee, but the terms by which that fee might be paid. There’s a contract to agree with Johnson and maybe even administration around ending Johnson’s own contract with Oxford. Maybe, maybe, Johnson has got to think carefully about the move. Of course, money is a motivating factor, but there’s his personal situation; does he want to live wherever he’s planning to go and also maybe he looks at the current careers of Lundstram, O’Dowda and (up until very recently) Roofe and does have to think about whether a move into the Championship is for him. I suspect, ultimately, the answer is yes, but that’s not always an easy decision to make when you’re the one to make it.

In the meantime, the game against Shrewsbury did feel like we’re still in transition and the uncertainty around Johnson is a contributory factor. Shrewsbury looked like a team with a simple, but well drilled strategy. Stay organised, break quickly and with numbers. It’s all very direct and, so the theory goes, a more sophisticated passing game will always be better. But we’re not yet clicking, and we still feel like a team which has the talent but isn’t yet locked together with a coherent strategy.

This will come in time, while we are figuring it all out and eeking out points where we can, Darryl Eales is surely going to give Pep Clotet time to bed in his strategy. How long that might take, however, will determine how successful this season is likely to be. But, it might take the resolution of Johnson’s situation before we can even start that process in earnest. 

Portsmouth wrap – Portsmouth 0 Oxford United 1

The total number people that have watched Oxford United since Christmas is 66,456, that’s more than double the number that watched us over the same period last year. The next couple of games will push that gap even further. Last week, for the first time ever, I bought two home tickets for different games at the same time. As a season ticket holder, I don’t usually need to worry about tickets at all, very occasionally I trouble the ticket office for an away-day or one-off cup ticket. In a normal season I might buy one ticket a year in advance of a home game, now I’m buying two in a week. 
If that teaches us anything, it’s that we’re very much not in Kansas anymore. This is not, in any way, a normal season, which means we’re facing a very different kind of pressure. If you look around the squad, there’s no experience of playing in this kind of environment. There are a few promotions in the squad, the odd cup upset and even one or two Wembley appearances, but who has done it all at the same time? If you look in the stands, there’s no experience of dealing with it either.
The win over Portsmouth was critical, but not because of points and league standings. We could afford to drop points in January because, if we apply ourselves, we should be able to pull back any losses in February and March. It’s not so much that those fixtures are easy, it’s just that January has been particularly hard. But things aren’t quite as straight forward as that; a defeat to Portsmouth would have made it two in a row. And, let’s not kid ourselves, the next two games against Blackburn and Millwall will both be significant tests. We could have gone into the game at Exeter off the back of a, technically speaking, poor run, maybe even four defeats. 
That’s the sort of thing that puts doubts in your head – the fabled Oxford United post-Christmas collapse, a lack of goals up front. It’s not physical or technical ability, but the mental capacity to cope that becomes the difference between success and failure. 
The win over Portsmouth continues to build a template for success. Key reference points that can be used in tougher times. A picture which shows we can compete, and win, in almost every scenario. As an Oxford fan it is very difficult to make bold predictions about the outcomes of a season, particularly in January. But, with the toughest possible month almost behind us, you have to say, promotion is absolutely in our hands.