The Absolute State of Oxford United Survey in the summer was conducted at the height of our post-season optimism. When asked where people thought we’d finish this season, most went for second. But, when asked who would win the title, we only ranked eighth, outside the play-offs.
This showed that while we have a lot of faith in our squad, our biggest challenge is the competitiveness within the division. We’re good, but so are Hull, Ipswich, Charlton, Sunderland, Portsmouth, Peterborough, Doncaster, and well, the list goes on.
This seems to have been more a shock to the players than the fans. It’s like we’ve been relegated from the Championship and expected an easier ride in a lower division. After four seasons in League One, it shouldn’t be a surprise that even the likes of Crewe and Lincoln have ability way beyond their brand might suggest.
That’s perhaps a little unfair, we’ve also had to cope with the unique combination of a short pre-season, the disappointment of a Wembley play-off defeat and the everyday mental challenges of the lockdown and pandemic.
Either way, we’ve seemed bewildered and under-prepared, like we’ve been catapulted into this wasteland of a season not ready for the emotional and physical emptiness. As a result, we’ve seemed lost and listless, feeling a bit sorry for ourselves.
Before the game on Tuesday against Portsmouth, there was a shot of the players arriving stadium, the first player to walk through the gate was carrying a Sainsbury’s bag. It reminded me of the peculiarly casual nature of games nowadays with players getting changed in makeshift changing rooms and appearing on the pitch via a side gate rather like a park team might.
The splendour of professional football, even at our level, has been stripped away. The intensity of gladiatorial combat, the ceremony, the baying crowds all gone. Motivation has to come from within.
But then, last night that all seemed to change. Maybe the win over Wigan helped spark a little mental revival, a renewed love of the competition even without its trappings. Portsmouth may have been the best follow-up; they’re a club we’ve played more than any other in the Football League and, judging by my recent poll of the club’s biggest rivals, hold a unique place in our psyche – not a traditional derby, but not an inconsequential fixture. It’s almost a sibling rivalry, both friendly and edgy.
In some ways, it’s like Portsmouth are the club we want to be, something that was reflected in our performance. Although there were no crowds to please, there was something else driving us to a renewed intensity; an inner resolve to avoid defeat. The line-up helped, it reminded me of our League Cup games last season; the apparent weakness on paper helped to us to focus and be sharp from the get-go.
With that sense of resolution, the game felt like a genuine away game; we needed to be aggressively competitive to avoid being swamped. The back-four were patient with the ball, something we haven’t seen enough of this season, the midfield were aggressive in the tackle and Dan Agyei up front knew his role was as much about stretching the play and occupying their defence as it was about scoring goals. Suddenly we looked both more solid and, at the same time, more threatening.
It was even satisfying to see the players squaring up to each other at the end of the game. In such a soulless environment; it is hard for passions to run riot like they might have done if there’d been a full stadium. The chest bumping and snarling, whatever caused it, helped conjure up an atmosphere and camaraderie, it was good to see Marcus McGuane squaring up to support Sam Long, the new and established combining as one. We’re not treading water until things get better, we’re working together.
The result helps to create the intensity that we’ll need if we’re to get out of the difficult position we’re in and perhaps even drive us to where we want to be. If we’re starting to acclimatise and enjoy this new world, then a derby on Saturday may be just what we need to come next.