Match wrap: Oxford United 1 Portsmouth 1 (aet – Oxford win 5-4 on penalties)

Success is threaded through the eye of a needle which, in a cruel illusion, gets smaller as you get closer. Like walking a narrowing mountain path where each step is more precarious than the last, each drop more vertiginous and lethal.

Imagine Joey Beauchamp shanking his 35-yard screamer over the bar in ‘96 or Michael Rankine arrowing his shot into the net at Wembley in 2010. Imagine Chey Dunkley’s bulldozing run being blocked against Wycombe in 2016. Moments where success becomes failure, where memorable seasons are forgotten. This is the eye of the needle through which we must now thread.

By the time we faced Portsmouth, there were no grass verges left, no Southends or Tranmeres against whom we could find our feet after a stumble. The path had narrowed and each subsequent step could only be the right one.

Before the second leg, Fraser Webster on the Fence End Podcast said that the current squad was the best he’d seen, particularly among those without a promotion to their name. I had a similar thought; only history will decide a classic line-up for 2020, but would we even get that far? Is there another great Oxford team without a promotion or cup to its name? Or can a team only be elevated when there’s a successful conclusion to cement its legend?

After the first leg, despite an away draw, it didn’t feel like we had the momentum we needed to progress. The sterile world we’re now in wiped away any emotional thrust. We’d been dogged rather than fluid and, beyond a couple of moments, our buccaneering style seemed to have been left in the old world. Pompey’s simpler approach appeared easier to re-start so while the result had been solid; the jerk forward, the impetus, wasn’t there. Excited for the second leg? Yes. Tense? Yes. Expectant? No.

The empty ground played its part, the curious kick-off time and the low sun of a summer tea-time added to the surrealism – part pre-season friendly, part end-season drama. As the game started, the patterns of the first leg threatened to repeat themselves. We looked like we were playing football, it just didn’t feel like it. Like hostages performing for their captors, it was a dutiful, soulless charade. As the game progressed and the pressure grew, it felt like each player could sense the red dot of a sniper’s sight dancing on their forehead; perform and you’ll live, one mistake and you’ll die.

James Henry looked sharper but Marcus Browne quieter, Sam Long refound his form, but Mark Sykes – so often a secret weapon – couldn’t fully engage. As much as we tried to find our path, we never quite seemed to.

Then, the ground gave way as we planted a foot on what we thought was firm ground; a goal. Harness brought the ball down and swept it home with Eastwood slow to react. The rocks cascaded down the ravine, a sinister reminder of our fate should we fail. Just as we looked set to fall, minutes later James Henry swung in a deep corner which looked harmless; inexplicably Ellis Harrison cut across Alex Bass, nodding the ball through his keeper’s hands and, by millimetres, over the line. The grasp at a tuft of grass, deeply rooted, strong enough to hold us, long enough for us to recover. We scrambled and regained our footing.

As the second half progressed, the dread gripped tighter; part fear, part fatigue. At home, Twitter fell silent, each minute passed, narrowing the path further, deepening the terror – a film noir of epic brooding silences punctuated by occasional yelps from the sidelines.

Come extra-time, we were no longer following a path, but a precipitous ridge on which to teeter. Each step felt less secure, but by now, going back was more dangerous, giving up was fatal, we had to progress. Chests tightened, breaths shortened, the wind whistled. We were at the crucible of the battle and still the path narrowed. 

Fitness evaporated, muscles functioned on a vapour of memories. Browne, the matchwinner, replaced by Jamie Hanson, Sykes by Dan Agyei, Long by Woodburn, Gorrin by Mousinho. Each move lurching us deeper into the unknown, was there to be an unlikely hero or were we simply running out of bodies? The shadow of a season’s effort crept ominously over us. 

All sense of time was lost in that extra period, perhaps it was minutes long, maybe days, the club tweeted that we were 130 minutes into a 120 minute game. No time like the present or simply no time at all. The silence got quieter still. 

The referee blew; maybe it was time, maybe it was pity, our captors releasing us from the torture. Two deeply exhausted teams, lost in an eternal hell, throwing air-shots at each other for the benefit of no one until one or the other, or both, collapsed from exhaustion. Football couldn’t decide our fate.

The path ended at the edge of a chasm, on the other side, it restarted, meandering up to the summit and onwards to success. Below, was nothing but wispy clouds and circling birds of prey picking at the carcasses of those who’d tried and failed previously to leap across the ravine. It was time to jump.

Pompey’s spot kicks were metronomic, bottom right, bottom right, in between Ben Woodburn scored, his new crew cut giving the impression of a teenager wrongly incarcerated. His penalty offering a faint reminder of a former happiness, he smiles for the first time in months. Anthony Forde, marginalised, then integral, present, then invisible converts the second, Matty Taylor, slick and assured; the third. As each kick passes, we expend another player, Taylor’s kick rises all the way, the least decisive of the sequence. He styles it out, as strikers do, but we’re rocking. Where the game had been a physical test, penalties are a mental examination. Is this the edge? The hours Karl Robinson has dedicated to developing a mindset, a camaraderie, a football club. The psychoanalysts probing for insecurities and chasing down doubts, developing the thinking space to perform under pressure.

McGeeghan steps up, a great bush of bleached blonde hair, his run up is short, he strikes. Eastwood, who’s looked troubled throughout despite two good saves, throws himself to his right, the ball nestles in his midriff, he looks down at it; safe, secure, saved. We have the edge. Up steps John Mousinho, titanical and assured with a leg like a traction engine built for this time and place, his swing is true, the rattle of the net cracks through the silence and we’re creeping ever nearer. Hawkins’ goal saves the first match point before the ball is handed to Cameron Brannagan.

Brannagan places the ball on the spot; combative, aggressive, confident, a boy who has become a man with a future pre-written. He steps back and suddenly looks abandoned, a great unending universe surrounds him, his run up is long, there’s a gaping space between him and the ball, he waits dutifully for the referee. All around him is doubt and regret seeking a way in. The silence haunts every space. Keep it down, keep it straight. He runs up, a lifetime of dedication from the streets of Salford to the windswept fields of Horspath via the  cosseted football factory of Melwood coursing through him, he strikes low and firm, the keeper chooses right and grasps desperately for salvation, but all he feels is air. The ball sneaks through and the net ripples, Portsmouth plummet into the ravine as we land on the other side. 

We’ve lept, we’ve scrambled, we’re still alive, the path to the summit awaits. We ride at dawn. 

Match wrap: Portsmouth 1 Oxford United 1

Like a first attempt at intimacy after infidelity, the first night out after the death of a close family member, the first football since March was always going to feel different. We had to try it, a tentative step back towards normality, but what would that moment feel like? Nobody knew.

For most of the week, I didn’t feel anything, I was briefly swamped by a wave of ennui, tired of the world we currently live in. The constant rumble of catastrophe just beyond the horizon, and for many, in plain sight. The football seemed both pointless and distant. As the wave washed through, I held my breath and swam, I got on with it, until I resurfaced, because that’s what you do; that or drown, I suppose.

Football has always been a constant; while life oscillates – and it oscillates more wildly than ever now, the prospect of a game has always soothed the volatility, calmed the waters. It’s just there, something to aim for each Saturday, a rock to cling to. Then it wasn’t there and we drifted on a great swell of grim statistics, predictions and opinions about death and money and human rights. Now it’s back. Would crowdless, inaccessible football have the same effect? Would it provide that soothing balm? I kind of needed it to; but wasn’t sure it would.     

I chose not to force it, I would lean into it, see what happened. As we edged towards the game, there was a stirring, a sense that something was happening. Even if it wasn’t going to be the same, it was going to mean something. By the time we got to Friday it was difficult to ignore; and, thankfully, it was genuine. For me, the Premier League is wallpaper, an entertainment medium, its return broke up endless re-runs of Come Dine With Me and Taskmaster. It was fine, but it didn’t help me in understanding how I would feel when it meant something more. 

Of course, it was weird. Necessarily weird, but the fact the club were there meant something. A welcome old friend, one which is stoic and strong and dependable, a brief moment of hope. Frankly, there have been times when someone returning from Asda with a carload of shopping has made me feel like this, but it was no less welcome. 

Tactically, strategically, operationally; there are no reference points as to how you handle this. The play-offs are notoriously hard to predict anyway, the science is poor. But with the fitness, the lack of crowds, the drinks breaks, increases in substitutions and the proximity of the games, how do you play it? Had the stands been full at Fratton Park, you’d expect to bed in, defend for your life, perhaps try to snatch a goal. But with two games effectively on neutral territory; do you stick to the script or go toe-to-toe? 

At first it felt like we were trying to play the tie like a 120-minute game. Ease in, don’t blow up too early let the quality come, but it was too slow; James Henry couldn’t quite get his feet to do what his brain wanted them to do, passes were under hit, then over hit, players who would normally be making runs didn’t seem to be there. What looked like a controlled start, evolved into a stodginess. What looked like absorbing pressure, became desperate defending.

But then, is football always like this? Scrappy and disjointed? Does a crowd create the illusion of fluidity? Were we doing OK? More in control than it appeared? After about quarter of an hour the ball finally made it out to Marcus Browne. Where Henry is a master of trigonometry, Browne is a master of cartography. Give him the ball and he’ll find the quickest route from A to B; he surged down the wing, stretching the Portsmouth defence and opening us up to move the ball around, suddenly we looked more comfortable.

But there was little doubt that Portsmouth had adapted better; later Wycombe would sweep aside Fleetwood in the other semi-final, the most physical and straight forward team in the league, just getting on with it. This is no time for complexity. The Portsmouth goal was a product of a simpler plan; drive forward, find gaps, when they appear, test the keeper; Simon Eastwood looked rusty at first, so any shot was worth it. After half an hour, having already been saved by the post, they scored.

But you can’t sustain that directness for a whole 90 minutes, if we could weather the storm, there’d be chances. The euphoria of the breakthrough seemed to release the rush of adrenaline that fuelled their intensity. Almost immediately we looked more comfortable, they looked like they needed a breather, but we were just getting going, we moved the ball around, and it started to feel normal again. 

This might offer some clues as to how to play these games – before the Premier League season resumed Pep Guardiola said his team were ready for their first game, it was after that they weren’t ready for. A physical, direct style is easier to prepare for, harder to sustain, unlocking the riddle of a high paced passing game needs game time to get right. As the games progress over the next week, the physical may naturally ebb away as tiredness creeps in, the influence of technique and tactics may grow as the muscle memory twitches, remembering what it has spent years learning. 

This should grow the influence of James Henry and Matty Taylor. That would play to our advantage; the second leg and a potential final against Wycombe looks, on paper, to be a physical test, but by the time we face them, will Portsmouth and Wycombe have the legs to last the distance? Perhaps you need to look at the longer game – if you can survive the physical battle, will technique make the difference? Wembley is a big pitch, it might suit us.

Browne always looked most likely to make the difference, quick feet and an uncluttered mind, he found a path through their midfield and terrifying their defence. His quality is in the clarity of his thinking, while others try to play politics with each other, he sees the gap, the obvious answer, and goes for it. 1-1.

I yelped and scared the cat; it meant something. Thank goodness.

Portsmouth claimed numerous penalties; but none were as clear cut as they later claimed. VAR would have given them, claimed Paul Warne in the studio. Yes, the endlessly maligned fussy mood killer would have given them. But is that what you want? A game decided by precision technology and a fastidious addiction to the rules? We’re trying to raise people’s spirits here, give them hope.

While we have to be happy with a draw, home advantage won’t make much difference, so the outcome is still up in the air. But, in a sense, that’s fine, I’m happy that there’s a story here as much as anything. Had we won, we might have been swept up in the joy of the win, creating an illusion of everything being fine. Had we lost heavily, I’d have been lost in the futility of getting to this point in the first place. We stirred, it meant something, it was fine, we will survive; the spirit lives on. There’s something worth fighting for, it’s going to be OK.

For a few more days, at least. 

George Lawrence’s Shorts: Up Pompey!… Ooh you are awful

Saturday 2 November 2019

Saturday’s 1-1 draw with Portsmouth was preceded by a Remembrance ceremony so shambolic, it made the First World War look like an episode of Great British Bake-Off. After a minute’s silence, which lasted for well over three, the teams appeared for yet another minute’s silence. Then, in the 90th minute, Matty Taylor popped up to nod home Oxford’s equaliser. Portsmouth fans then meticulously observed several more minutes of silence as they trudged home.  

Sunday 3 November 2019

It’s been debated for years and divided families, but finally it seems to be happening. Yes, Lincolnshire sexiest people have been ranked. Our own Mr Big Guns, and new Lincoln manager, Michael Appleton muscled in at number 11. 

Who is he sexier than? it’s…… Rebekah Vardy (45th), Nicholas Parsons (31st) and Rob Lowe – an America who once played a policeman from Lincolnshire.

Michael isn’t as sexy as Sergeant Mike ‘Tempo’ Templeman from Channel 5’s Police Interceptors or number 1 – Bhasha Mukherjee who is A beauty queen! A woman! and a Doctor! A combination we all know is not actually possible.

Monday 4 November 2019

We were thrust into the vice-like jaws of Big Football on Monday as it was announced that our Type 1 Diabetes Cup Quarter-Final against cash bores Manchester City will be Live! On! Sky! On! Wednesday! 16! December! This will allow the club to suckle on the teat of Sky’s cash cow to the tune of £125000. The game they’re calling ‘Man City Covets Thy Neighbours Ox’ or something, accommodates City’s big game against Arsenal on Sunday, which Sky are billing as ‘The Big Man’s Arse’ – which we all thought was Scott McNiven. 

Tickets are on sale to season ticket holders and members, and will be available to half-and-half scarf wearers in a couple of weeks. 

Tuesday 5 November 2019

We’re not suggesting that Lancashire has slow internet, but The Lancashire Post were reporting a game from 49 years ago on Wednesday. The game between Oxford and Preston resulted in an outfield player in goal and a goalie on the wing in a sling. 

Former Oxford captain John Lundstram is rapidly becoming hipster’s choice in the world of Fantasy Football. Once celebrated as a master of the passing craft, he’s now revered for being cheap and mistakenly labelled as a ‘defender’ in the fantasy parallel world, thereby clocking up plenty of unexpected points. What a life.

Wednesday 6 November 2019

Ipswich are on the run from the rampant Yellows after they (Ip)switched the game between the two sides on the 16th November due to international call-ups. The international break would have seen the Ipswich Galacticos stripped of their Cypriot international, a Tunisian Under 23 and Albanian Under 19.  

Thursday 7 November 2019

It was the Six Minute Ten Seconds Fans Forum on Thursday with Jamie Mackie. ‘Who winds you up in training?’ was the first question which caused Mackie to collapse on the floor holding his head, theatrically check his forehead for blood and moan for the rest of the interview about how he’s not getting any protection from the rough-housing.

Friday 8 November 2019

You have to feel for Sunderland, it’s like they live in a parallel universe. One website has suggested that the benevolent failure-magnets could be good enough to take Cameron Brannagan off our hands in January. This is due to us ‘punching above our weight’ (aka punching above Sunderland). The Mackem’s would walk League 1 if less entitled clubs would get out of the way and let them do it.

Saturday 9 November 2019

Going to football is cold and miserable; we should just stay at home with a spreadsheet. That’s what data driven Five Thirty Eight have done; they’ve plugged all their numbers into Excel and predicted that we’ll finish third behind Ipswich and Sunderland. A lot of factors are considered; expected goals, defensive qualities, number of seats in your stadium, Charlie Methven’s loafers, that sort of thing.

Match wrap: Portsmouth 1 Oxford United 1

This season Portsmouth are best described by what happened before the game. Fratton Park is one of the larger traditional grounds in the division and I was looking forward to the crumbling steps and rusting corrugated iron that holds the place together. It’s the sort of football environment I was brought up in.

Beforehand, they ran two interviews over the PA; one with Kenny Jackett and the other with a player, both talked about their lowly league position how their form was good and bad at the same time. A bit like us last season; never completely terrible, but somehow unable to climb the table.

Then came a bloated Armistice ceremony; there’d be a reading, the last post and a minute’s silence. There were drummers, flag bearers and some children on the pitch, but no players. The crowd fell silent for three or four awkward minutes, nobody could ask if something had gone wrong because speaking is disrespectful.

Then kids in Portsmouth kits came on to make a guard of honour and the players started to appear. The endless silence broke. The players were applauded on, the captains laid wreaths and then they lined up a second time for the reading, last post and minute’s silence.

And that’s Portsmouth; trying to do the right thing and simply getting it wrong. A proper muddle.

The conditions, injuries and fatigue were always going to even things up. It was never going to be straight forward, you could see early on that the patches of sodden turf and the wind meant passes and clearances were easily miscued, overrun or under hit. It suited grafters like Alex Gorrin and John Mousinho much more than ballplayers like Tariqe Fosu.

After their penalty we looked spent and I was thinking that we’d take the narrow defeat; which was much better than our last two visits. Fratton Park had came to life, we were stuck between chasing the game and conceding more. The introduction of Anthony Forde gave us renewed energy and some quality in our delivery. James Henry suddenly started getting more of the ball; our experienced players took control, pushing Portsmouth further back.

It was this experience and confidence that jimmied away at their insecurities. It wasn’t just desire, it was the application of professional experience, knowing we could get something from the game, even when things were going against us. After a few close calls it came, James Henry to the back post; Matty Taylor heading back across the keeper; a training ground drill. It was no accident, no desperate lunge for survival, this is what experience gives you, the deep muscle memory to keep applying what you know until you’re rewarded.

It was such a treat to see us applying the screw, so often we’ve been the victims of teams which played on our weaknesses – teams like Portsmouth. Dare I say it, it’s the character you see in promotion teams.

But, there’s no getting around the fact injuries are building up and we looked tired. Next week we have a bit of a free hit in the FA Cup – we should have enough quality in the squad to get a result, even if it is a bit of a patched up team. Then, there’s a likely postponement the following week because of internationals. It gives us a bit of time to recover before we visit Southend on the 23rd – it couldn’t have come at a better time, it’s been quite a few weeks.

George Lawrence’s Shorts: Potato ROFLs

Saturday 5 October 2019

At the Wham Stadium on Saturday Tariqe Fosu proved He’s Our Man opening the goalscoring against victorian non-leaguers Accrington Stanley. Young Gun, Cameron Brannagain saw an opportunity to Go For It from 25 yards to make it 2-1 before we were pegged back to 2-2 with a low strike to the left of the goal; or was it a Different Corner? Jamie Mackie was booked for Careless Whispers with the ref.

Monday 7 October 2019

Liverpool wunderkind Ben Woodburn had a little bump playing with the big boys on Saturday. He was a very brave and didn’t cry, after a cold compress, a cuddle, a Paw Patrol plaster and twelve weeks on the sidelines and he’ll be out to play again. 

Tuesday 8 October 2019

In the MySpace.com Trophy, Oxford won through after losing in the draw against Portsmouth. The game of futility wrapped in a cloak of pointlessness, balanced on a plinth on inconsequentiality ended 2-2, with goals from Matty Taylor and Rob Dickie which left Pompey with the humiliation of having to win the penalty shoot-out and pretend it meant something.

In alopecia news; dome bonced Conference crushing pass-master Adam Murray has taken over as Barnsley manager after Daniel Stendel was sacked.  

Wednesday 9 October 2019

Weekly Scottish full-back news (that isn’t about Chris Cadden bowel movements or ice cream preferences): former loanee Todd Kane could be set to join the Scotland squad

Thursday 10 October 2019

After legitimate ice hockey fan and player Petr Chech joined Guilford Phoenix as a way of keeping fit during his retirement, Oxford City Stars announced the absolute mega-lolz and cry-face emoji news that the greatest Oxford goalscorer with a head shaped like a potato, James Constable, had signed for them. It was double ROFLs from hairdo’s worst nightmare Greig Box Turnbull who cracked the joke to acceptable apathy on Twitter a few hours before doubling down on it in a press release which was also royally ignored. As GLS knows more than most, there’s nothing funnier than a re-fried joke.

It was the Five Minute Thirty-Eight Second fans forum on Radio Oxford on Thursday with KRob. One fan asked whether we talk too much about formations before KRob talked too much about formations – inadvertently giving out his credit card PIN in the process. There was also extended chat about his sweat patches. And people think he talks too much.

Friday 11 October 2019

It’s Doncaster tomorrow and the air will be filled with a chorus of “We’re by far the 427th greatest team, the world has ever seen”. Website FiveThirtyEight – a team of crack statistical virgins – has ranked 628 teams from around the world. We were the third highest League 1 team, comfortably nestled in between Argentinians, Godoy Cruz and Sochaux of Switzerland, and 152 places ahead of Swindon, obviously. GLS doesn’t know how the rankings were done; so we looked at the methodology and realise that we don’t care.

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.