George Lawrence’s Shorts: Rumpy Pompey

Saturday 20 February 2021

There was a dull stalemate on Saturday when Oxford’s trip to Ipswich Town resulted in a 0-0 draw. The game was decidedly underwhelming, particularly given that both clubs had been on fire the previous week. We mean, literally on fire

Meanwhile, Luton Town boss Nathan Jones has backed former Oxford striker Danny Hylton, saying he’d have scored more that ten goals this season despite a goal drought stretching back nearly two years. He just needs games, says Jones, and to stop living in a badger hole wearing shoes made of straw.

Sunday 21 February 2021

Former Oxford striker Andy Scott has been talking to Wales Online about his role as Head of Recruitment at Swansea City. Scott felt right at home when he walked through the door at The Liberty Stadium. “I inherited a recruitment department that was non-existent” he said “We were left with no analysts, no scouts, no reporting system.” In other words, it was totally David Kemped.

Monday 22 February 2021

March 26 is a date to mark in your diary and for MApp to tattoo on his forearm in Comic Sans. The big showdown between his Lincoln City table toppers and KRob’s Oxford has been moved for TV. The change to a Friday night gives fans the opportunity to get off their laptops for once and see football as it’s really meant to be; on an overpriced disinterested subscription TV channel.  

Tuesday 23 February 2021

Tuesday saw us slide to a narrow 1-0 defeat to Portsmouth. Oxford fans are aghast at our dramatic collapse in form following our best run of wins in 128 years. Is it too much to ask that we break that record twice in the same season? 

In brighter news, The Independent have done a profile of former Oxford United director and alleged child sex trafficker Ghislaine Maxwell, who is currently in jail in New York. In it, they reveal that one of Ghislaine’s successes was to establish an Oxford United supporters’ club. Wait, not seen in months? Has their own supporters’ club? Good with the kids? Olly the Ox, is that you?  

Wednesday 24 February 2021

Brandon Barker’s loan is in crisis according to Rangers News. They’ve expressed their concern that Barker is not getting game time at Oxford when he could be not getting game time back up north. Barker has only featured in six of the last six games and none of them against part-timers Tunnock Teacake Academicals. How is that going to prepare him for the structural unfairness of the Scottish Premier League next season? 

Thursday 25 February 2021

It was the Eight Minute Forty-Five Second Fans’ Forum on Radio Oxford on Thursday with Josh ‘don’t call me ruffles’ Ruffels. Ruffles, er, Ruffels discussed his favourite game, not searching his name on social media – it’s Ruffels, not ruffles – and the car PClot bought the squad which looked OK until you tried to go anywhere and then it fell apart. PARP! PARP! PARP! – ANALOGY KLAXON. 

Elsewhere, MApp will be kept in dumbbells and high protein milkshakes for the next few years as he’s signed a new contract with Lincoln City until 2025

Friday 26 February 2021

It’s the KRob derby on Saturday at MK Dons. The Oxford manager is considered a god in Milton Keynes after guiding them to The Championship in 2015. Current manager, Russell Martin was asked whether the return of The Roundabout Bill Shankly added a bit of spice to the game “Not for me,” he said staring up at a bronze statue of KRob stripped to the waist astride a mighty stag outside the stadium “Coming back here probably adds a little bit for him – but it’s the same for me.” It really doesn’t bother him does it? And it’s absolutely fine that his wife calls out ‘Karl’ when they’re making love. Absolutely. Fine.

Meanwhile, junior glovesman Jack Stevens has signed a new contract keeping him at the club until 2024. Stevens has become well established in the first team since taking over the family business from, dad, Sensible Simon Eastwood. 

Match wrap: Oxford United 0 Portsmouth 1

I went to Las Vegas years ago, I didn’t gamble much, I found the experience too intimidating with people slumped over the fruit machines unable to move and pneumatically enhanced women serving free drinks to keep the punters lubricated and spending. 

There was one experience that stood above everything else. Wandering through one of the casinos, I found myself watching a game of blackjack at a table. Everyone looked very serious with chips stacked high next to every player. I gradually found myself at the front of the crowd of onlookers with nothing between me and a vacant chair. The croupier caught my eye, gesturing for me to sit. My blood ran cold, couldn’t be sure how to play, didn’t have much money and everyone looked tense and intimidating. I wasn’t ready to take my seat at the table. Thankfully, someone was ushered into the spot before I found the right words.

It was years later I realised what was going on. The players were hardened gamblers, Nevada gambling laws mean that private games are illegal and I’d found myself standing next to a high roller table which required a mere $10,000 to join a game. 

Last season, I felt we were ill-prepared for The Championship, a high roller table with a minimum stake beyond our means. Promotion would have been bitter sweet, as Wycombe are finding this season. Our notional fourth place finish last season was largely due to the points-per-game calculation and the quirk of our five winning game run that preceded the curtailing of the season. We still had Coventry, Wycombe, Fleetwood and Portsmouth to play, and in all likelihood we’d have dropped back by the end of the season.

That early ending gave us a false picture of our status in the division, which created a surge of optimism and expectation. Something that was eventually readdressed when the new season started.

While last night’s defeat seemed to confirm that we’re still not a sure-fire high stakes play-off contender, there’s no reason to be concerned. Only two teams in the top 10 – Peterborough and Sunderland – have won more games than us in their last five, Lincoln and Hull have both stumbled in recent weeks. Teams around us seem to be feeling the fatigue of an intense and disrupted season as much as we are.

Last night was typical of defeats we saw earlier this season; Portsmouth hurried and harried, forcing us to play at a pace that made constructing anything meaningful very difficult. We play at pace anyway, but it leaves little time to think. If we don’t slow the game down, then we need the opposition to tire to give us space. Perhaps that’s a reason for our slower starts to the season; when opponents are fresh, regardless of their ability, they can sustain the disrupting tempo that makes it harder for us to control the game. As the season wears on those at the bottom of the table lose that ability and we benefit.

It was close, we could easily have come away with a point; which would have been our sixth consecutive draw against Pompey. We’re not yet out-performing the best in the division, but we’re staying with them.

Beating the better sides is definitely a goal to aim at before the end of the season, it’s a slight obsession that we’ve not had a win against a top six side, although that’s another way of saying that we beat the teams we’re better than and don’t win against those who we aren’t. Which is pretty obvious really, I’d be more frustrated if it were the other way around.

Still, beating top six sides will help enforce the belief that we should be competing at that level. The idea that we can sit at the same blackjack table is becoming an increasingly comfortable reality, it’s a mindset that needs to soak in.

It’s possible that we’re ready for the play-offs and promotion, but not yet equipped to play in The Championship. Culturally, I think we’re very close, but structurally we’re a long way off, we need to build that infrastructure, which takes time and Covid has been a massive distraction. The alternative springboard to the next level is a super-rich benefactor, but I’m not ready to sell my soul yet.

We should still be hopeful for this season, for all the concern, the result was our second league defeat in sixteen off the back of a record breaking run of wins. It took 128 years to achieve that feat, fans expecting a return to that kind of form in a matter of weeks are kidding themselves, we were always going to fall back a bit. 

It is quite normal for teams at our level, competing for play-off and promotion spots, to go on strange runs of good and bad form. We saw it last season with Wycombe whose form was abject when the season ended, but benefitted from a quirk of maths. We also saw it with us and the run which got us into play-offs in the first place.

I think we have another run left in us this season; we don’t have an excess of injuries and our two defeats to Doncaster and Portsmouth were very close against good sides. Whether it’s enough to sneak us into the play-offs may be determined by the timing of that run. Getting into the play-offs may not mean we’re good enough for the high roller table that is the division above, but that’s a concern for another time.  

Match wrap: Portsmouth 1 Oxford United 1

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.

Midweek fixture: Oxford United’s biggest rivals… ranked

How do you measure a rivalry? Location? Envy? Superiority? Or is it just a feeling? A few weeks ago, I asked you who you thought were our biggest rivals. Well, here’s the top nineteen.

19. Peterborough United

Let’s not get carried away; it doesn’t take many votes to become our 19th biggest rival. This one is the result of a brooding dislike following the curtailing of last season and the antics of the Peterborough hierarchy.

18. Cambridge United

Really? I’m surprised so many lazy Sky Sports commentators voted. The tenuous varsity link between the two cities has never turned made it into the stands in terms of a rivalry.

17. Queen’s Park Rangers

While many of these lower rivals are based on a single issue, any rivalry with QPR is surely based on a single game, 34 years ago at Wembley.

16. Coventry City

Maybe a bit of a surprise to some, but if you live in the north of the county, you may be more familiar with Coventry fans than other parts.

15. Sunderland

The biggest team in our division probably attracts a few ‘pick me’ votes, but the added link of Stewart Donald, Charlie Methven and Chris Maguire, mean that Sunderland make the list.

14. Stevenage

The team that denied us promotion from the Conference in 2010, but most likely, any rivalry is down to one man and his drinks break; Graham Westley.

13. Wimbledon

Familiarity breeds contempt, Oxford and Wimbledon have shared many seasons together over a very long time. Alongside Luton, they’re the only team we’ve played in both the top flight and the Conference.

12. Bristol City

I can’t fathom this one, we’ve played each other once in the last eighteen years.

11. Crewe Alexandra

In almost any other season, Crewe wouldn’t attract a vote, but the vitriol surrounding their double postponement earlier this season adds a bit of spice to an otherwise dormant relationship. The only rivalry based on not playing any games.

10. Cheltenham Town

Into the top ten and we’re beginning to touch on more sensible rivalries. Cheltenham Town’s relationship must be down to location.

9. Leyton Orient

Some will never let it go; some fourteen years ago Leyton Orient came to the Kassam looking for a win to secure promotion. They did it in the last minute, which sent us down to the Conference. They danced on our pitch, apparently, though I’d left by then. Some will never forget or forgive.

8. MK Dons

The newest rivalry in the list. It’s not exactly what you’d call white hot, but geographical location has always promised a good large following and made MK Dons a decent away day.

7. Portsmouth

Portsmouth sat on their own in terms of votes – some twenty ahead of MK Dons, and a similar number behind Northampton. We’ve shared many seasons with Portsmouth, I think secretly we’re a bit envious of their size and history, which makes beating them all the more sweet.

6. Northampton Town

Now we’re into the real rivalries. First up Northampton Town, another team whose path we’ve crossed countless times. Added spice came from Chris Wilder leaving us for them in 2014, then keeping them up. Then two years later, Wilder took them up as champions despite Michael Appleton’s assertion we were the better team.

5. Luton Town

There’s a genuinely visceral dislike for Luton Town, we’ve played them in the top division and the Conference, we’ve been promotion rivals and they’ve poached our manager. All of which adds up to a relationship with a bit of bite.

4. Bristol Rovers

A team we’ve played with almost monotonous regularity, any rivalry is spiced up by the fact we’re both very capable of winning away in the game. Matty Taylor helped turn the heat up a notch, he hates the Gas, pass it on.

3. Wycombe Wanderers

It’s not a derby, but of all the non-derbies out there, this is the biggest one for us. We won decisively in a key game on the way to promotion in 1996, they beat us in the FA Cup when we were on a roll in 2010, six years later we secured promotion against them, and last year they secured promotion against us at Wembley. It’s not a derby, but it’s getting there.

2. Reading

Perhaps at the expense of Reading? We haven’t played each other in 16 years and not as equals in 19. But, a rivalry still exists, apparently, though it’s kind of like the Korean War – it’s still technically happening, but in reality it’s made up of irritating each other on social media.

1. Swindon Town

The big one. But, this list wasn’t really about finding out who our biggest rival were.

Midweek fixture: League 1 Kitwatch 2020/2021

There’s nothing better than a new kit; so the summer is new kit Christmas. Nearly everyone have revealed their kit for the new season. I’ll keep updating this post with new designs as they’re revealed. Here’s what we have so far…

Accrington Stanley

Accrington are punching above their weight adopting Adidas as their kit manufacturer. Thankfully they’ve managed to bring the tone down a notch or two with an experimental dotty sleeve. It’s let Accrington down, it’s let Adidas down, but most of all, it’s let the lovely white shirt down.

Blackpool

We’re all shocked to our core with Blackpool’s new shirt; tangerine with white trim, like every Blackpool shirt in history. That said, it’s a nice enough design. Eagled eyed among you will see this template replicated elsewhere. In the least shocking news ever the away shirt is a simple reverse out of the home version.

Bristol Rovers

The key to any artistic process is to know when to stop. Bristol Rovers have an iconic kit and it shouldn’t be difficult to pull a decent shirt out of the bag. This version has funny cuffs, collar, stripe down the arm, what appears to be some kind of camo shadowing. The second kit goes some way to redeeming things, but not much.

Burton Albion

Burton Albion may be the most forgettable team in the division, and their new home shirt lives up to that reputation. One of this season’s trends is the re-introduction of the button collar, which we can all agree is a travesty. And yet, the away kit is so awful, apparently modelled on the faux medical uniform of a cosmetic surgery nurse, that the button may just improve it.

Charlton Athletic

Without doubt Charlton have bigger problems than providing a decent new kit. The home shirt looks like every Charlton kit ever released, while the away shirt is probably a reflection of the mood around the club.

Crewe Alexandra

Crewe’s return to League 1 is marked by a retro red and black number, but it’s the away kit which is of most note, appearing to take inspiration from their shirt sponsor Mornflake Mighty Oats.

Doncaster Rovers

Thankfully Doncaster Rovers’ new shirt is identical to every Doncaster Rovers home shirt of the last decade. The red and white hoops are a classic not to be messed with. The away kit is also pretty sweet; maybe the best combo in the division?

Fleetwood Town

To some people, the fact that Fleetwood Town exist and are managed by Joey Barton is confusing enough. This kit, which seems to adopt about nine different styles in one, is a proper head scrambler. The away kit, however, works really nicely – silver and mint, who knew?

Gillingham

Bit of an odd one this; Gillingham are perhaps the most meh team in League 1, and it appears that they’re sticking with the same kit as last season. It’s OK, Macron, the manufacturer, have a nice style about them. You could describe this as a bit meh, really.

Hull City

Like all the teams coming down from the Championship, Hull have been slow to release their new shirt. The result is an unremarkable number, saved largely by the fact that it’s Umbro, giving it a nice traditional feel. The third kit (no second kit that I can ascertain) is a bit of an oddity; when I first saw it, I really liked it and thought it was one of the nicest in the division, then I looked again and find it a bit boring.

Ipswich Town

A tale of two shirts for Ipswich Town. An absolute beauty for the home shirt reminiscent of their heyday in the 1980s under Bobby Robson. The away shirt looks like someone has washed it with a tissue in the pocket.

Lincoln City

Lincoln City play a classic card with their new shirt. There are few teams that wear red and white stripes who haven’t gone for the disruptive inverted colourway at some point. There will be Lincoln fans everywhere tearing up their season tickets at the abomination, but I like it. The away number is solid but unremarkable.

MK Dons

A solid home option for MK Dons, but you can’t deny they work hard to be the most despicable team in the league, the away shirt is black with gold trim? What are they? A Bond villain? Yes, yes they are.

Northampton Town

I’ve always felt that Hummel offer a hipster’s choice when it comes to shirt manufacturing; typically because of their excellent work on the Danish national shirts in the mid-80s. I’ve also always liked Northampton’s colours. So, put together should be a sure fire winner. the away kit is OK until you look more closely, the strange central dribble, the fading pin stripes. They get away with it, but only just.

Oxford United

Look closely, well not that closely, and you’ll see the new Oxford shirt is the same Puma template as Blackpool and Swindon. Rumour has it that in real life it adopts the geometric pattern of the Peterborough shirt. It’s OK, for a title winning shirt.

Peterborough United

Last season Puma made a big deal of their sublimated flux shirt designs, this year seems to have some kind of geometric update. There are randomised white flecks in there as well. A real nearly, but not quite design, a bit like Peterborough. The away shirt utilises the 437th Puma template of the division, and it’s a bit of a cracker, while nothing screams ‘Revenge season’ then a neon pink third kit.

Plymouth Argyle

Plymouth return to League 1 with a couple of scorchers. The home shirt is spoilt a bit with what appears to be a button collar, the away kit is absolutely magnificent. It’s difficult to imagine under what circumstances they would need a third kit, but it ticks some boxes.

Portsmouth

One of the big favourites for the League 1 title next season have opted for a pretty conservative upgrade. What the heck is with that collar though? I quite like the away shirt with its white shadow stripes, it reminds me of our own away kit from the mid-eighties. Was there a three for two offer at Sports Direct? The unnecessary third kit looks like a reboot of our 2013/14 Animalates shirt.

Rochdale

You might call it armageddon chic; there’s a theme in a lot of kits where they’ve taken their standard design and given it a twist. Quite often it’s such a twist it comes off completely. Rochdale are just about the right side of acceptable with the blurred lined and shredded but at the top.

Shrewsbury Town

Aficionados of League 1 kit launches will know that Shrewsbury specialise in producing terrible promotional photography. For evidence try this, this or even this.This year is no different. Still, they get bonus points for adopting Admiral as their kit manufacturer. The away shirt takes inspiration from Oxford’s purple years when we were sponsored by Isinglass.

Swindon Town

Our friends up the A420 have selected yet another Puma kit variation. How many templates does one manufacturer need? It’s a nice and simple design, ruined by the addition of a Swindon Town badge. The away shirt could not be less imaginative if it tried.

Sunderland

Let’s not kid ourselves; all teams use standard templates, but Sunderland’s new Nike shirt absolutely screams ‘park football’. The away shirt is Portsmouth’s home shirt in a different colour way, but that’s OK, I quite like it.

Wigan Athletic

I was genuinely sad when I saw this; Wigan’s kit feels like a club that’s fallen apart with the off-the-peg template and the ironed-on ‘sponsor’ (let’s assume the Supporters Club have not paid a penny for this).

AFC Wimbledon

Have Wimbledon given up? They seem so bored with life they can’t be bothered to feature a decent logo of their sponsor and what can you say about the diagonal shadow stripe? They seem to trump it with the away shirt, which is going some. A shirt that screams relegation.

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.