Match wrap: Rochdale 3 Oxford United 4

Back in 1991, a few friends and I went to see the WWF (now WWE) UK Rampage Wrestling Tour at the Docklands Arena. After an enriching evening with Hulk Hogan, Sergeant Slaughter and Jimmy ‘Superfly’ Snuka, we stayed overnight at the student digs of a friend in Leytonstone. Upon arrival at the flea bitten hovel, we were given a briefing; we’d sleep on the floor, our bodies tessellating to fill the limited space available, and if we wanted a drink, the kitchen was down the corridor.

‘Just be careful’ warned our host ‘If you meet Imran, try and get out as quickly as possible.’

Imran, it turned out, was a housemate and ‘lovely bloke’, but one with a prodigious drug habit. He’d been known to pull a knife on someone who he thought was stealing his milk from the communal fridge. Apparently you could tell when he was ‘on one’ because you could see it in his eyes. 

That night I slept with both eyes open, monitoring the movement of the carpet lice in the half-light, listening to distant shrieks of students either having the best night of their lives or being raped and murdered. It was hard to tell.

You could see the wild eyes of Tuesday’s game from the get-go. From the opening moments, both sides careened into each other, abandoning all tactical intent to control the game. Rochdale are on an extended winless run and we were away from home, normal instinct should have been to start conservatively. Not a bit of it.

Dan Agyei, who normally cuts a fairly relaxed figure, was marauding around competing for every ball, chasing down each loose pass that held up on the damp pitch. Within seconds he’d spurned a chance, a few minutes later he made it 1-0.

What should have been a routine midweek set-to in a dank backwater rapidly spiralled out of control. A bit like going for a midweek drink only to find that one friend has helped his housemate finish a wrap of cocaine he found in his pocket before heading out and the other only has a training course at work in the morning and is in the mood to make a night of it. The shackles loosened, the rules evaporated and before we knew we were staring at the crotch of a stripper at a local club who had just extracted £200 from our wallet for a vodka and coke and the privilege of sniffing her diamanté thong.

Football never ceases to amaze; I thought that the days of having heroes were long behind us until James Constable came along. I thought my senses had been sufficiently deadened not to be drawn into a giddy stupor until the 2015/16 season happened and made me feel nine-years-old again. There were times during Tuesday’s game where I was reminded of that line from Rudyard Kipling’s ‘If’ – “If you can meet with triumph and disaster, And treat those two impostors just the same”. Initially, the emotions didn’t change when we led or when we fell behind, which was so often, the club’s Twitter account may have been better only tweeting when there wasn’t a goal. It was supposed to be a couple of drinks with mates to break up the working week, I didn’t think even think I still had a big night in me.

The game sat in the intersection of a Venn diagram between an awful game of lower league football and a grotesquely entertaining spectacle. A riot of haphazard defending and panicked attacking – a beautifully terrible reminder of why we love this stuff. It was all wrong and all right at the same time. The ball fizzled around, barely under any control; Elliott Moore headed home by simple virtue of being two-feet taller than everyone else, he’d later use his enormous gate to rescue us from conceding a certain goal. I’m beginning to love Elliott Moore, he just strides around the pitch getting things done.

The mist from the fine rain and the low definition of my laptop screen made the game hard to follow, such was the pace of the game. Fittingly, the opening minutes had sound and vision out of sync by about 45 seconds, it probably should have stayed like that. 

Defences held a high line, straining to join their attacks, strikers probed the spaces behind. Neither team could have been less comfortable with the ball if it was on fire. For a team like Rochdale, whose hard won status in League 1 you’d think they’d want to protect, it seemed recklessly kamikaze. They’ve now generated forty-seven goals in nine games including two 3-3 draws, a 4-4 and last night’s 4-3. It’s wildly entertaining stuff, but massively destructive – the Bez of League 1.

We’re a reformed character by comparison, emotional and naive earlier in the season, we seem to have matured. We’re like a former hellraiser shackled by our corporate job in IT and a mortgage. But it was like we’d had our drink spiked, a rocket delivered by James Henry like a shot of absinthe and, well, everything went fuzzy after that. 

As closing time approached we stumbled out of the bar and into the street, both teams still slugging away, it was going to end in tears one way or another. Did the absence of a crowd contribute? The game was been stripped of all context and consequence. There was nobody screaming from the sidelines telling them to stop the madness; the equivalent of a bedraggled girlfriend, teetering on her six inch heels, hitching up her dress screeching ‘Leave it Karl, ‘eee ain’t wurf it’.

Finally, like two overweight journeymen prize fighters, shorts pulled up to their nipples, embarrassing themselves for a purse of buttons, Rochdale swung wildly at Jack Stevens’ goal from 45 yards with a make-or-break haymaker. It missed, but the momentum caught them off balance and we swung back, Mide Shodipo connected with their glass jaw, turning their knees to jelly and they collapsed, like a felled elk, slumped on the canvas. We gulped the air, collected the three points – the spare change that had dropped from our pockets – and made for home. 

Stood on the doorstep with a ripped shirt and bruises we couldn’t explain, we struggled to align the key with the lock. The cold air sobers, but the adrenalin and remaining alcohol courses through our veins. The world swirls around. Eventually the key engages and we turn it as quietly as we can, stepping inside, we kick a plant pot over that startles the dog and alerts everyone that you’re home. You’ll never be able to explain how you got in this state, and you’ll feel it in the morning, but it was quite a night.

Match wrap: Oxford United 3 Rochdale 1

In 1996 we went six games without scoring, I remember the sense of growing desperation. We’d just enjoyed a thrilling, but narrow promotion the previous season and the fear was we’d been found out. The 10-hour barren run consisted of five away games, including a demoralising 1-0 defeat at Swindon. Catastrophising was rife as we advanced towards a point where we wondered if we’d ever score again; the path to goal seemed unnavigable.

We faced Stoke City, seventh in the table, at the Manor on a Tuesday night. In the first-half Martin Gray, a much maligned grafter in midfield, pounced on a Nigel Jemson knock back to score his first goal for the club. In Jemson, Martin Aldridge, Paul Moody and Joey Beauchamp, we had many more refined attacking options, but while their talents and magic had deserted them, Gray simply put in the work to find a way to break the duck. Nobody could predict that Gray would be the one to break the hoodoo. The goal opened the floodgates, we won 4-1 and followed up with another four wins in a sequence including 13 goals – most of which were from more refined talents than Gray.

Football is full of stories of hoodoos, luck and talent; a magical pantomime surrounding the realities of organisation, process and effort that really makes a team successful. I often wonder how genuine the pantomime is. When we say we hate another team, is we really hate the actual people who support that team, even though they’re likely to be just like you or I? It’s the same with players; do we genuinely believe they don’t care or don’t try when they make a mistake or lose a game?

I feel schizophrenic about it; on one level, I buy into the whole thing – football much is less fun if you’re fair, equitable and empathetic of players or opponents. However, I feel bad about the criticisms, and how I exact my frustrations at people who, in all likelihood, are just doing their best.

Last night’s win over Rochdale was a case in point. I’ve questioned Simon Eastwood’s form this season, but have no problem with his ability or commitment. He made a number of brilliant saves last night; each one made my heart sing because it signalled another step towards him being the player we know he can be. I desperately want to see him succeed, far more than wanting him dropped or punished when things don’t go well.

Likewise along the backline; there’s little doubt we have a deeper systemic issue at centre-back. It’s not a commentary on the individuals – Mousinho, Atkinson and Moore – it’s how we’ve struggled to plan effective succession in the wake of Rob Dickie and Curtis Nelson’s departures. 

At risk of an overstatement; Elliot Moore’s performance last night felt like a coming of age, it wasn’t just his goals – though his touch for the first and the domination in the air for the second was almost Matt Elliot-like. He was also commanding at the back and while we ended up defending more than we’d have liked, it was good to see the reward for his determination to keep Rochdale at bay. I hope, like Rob Dickie last season, this sort of success sees his confidence grow.

Likewise, our wobbliness at centre-back and the lack of protection in midfield without Gorrin or Brannagan – has put more pressure on Sean Clare to defend. As a result he’s been maligned in the opening weeks of the season, just at a time when you want him to settle into a rhythm. Last night he was able to show why he was brought to the club; he’s less of a Joe Skarz or Scott McNiven, more a Damian Batt; an attacking threat.

The only blot in the copybook was the penalty, which was again more about the pantomime of football than the realities. I hate these technical offences; like the offside law aiming to combat goalhanging but becoming a technical offence about putting your toe in the wrong place. The new handball rule is a departure from its original intentions – to stop a player gaining an advantage using their hands. The new interpretation means it’s in the interest of the attacker to direct the ball towards the midriff of the defender in the hope of it ricocheting off the hand.

So, in reality, this was as close to a clean sheet as you can get without actually having one, which is a massive step in the right direction. It was beginning to feel like conceding a couple of goals a game was embedding itself within our DNA.

Like the Martin Gray goal against Stoke, the product of effort over talent; this was the perfect way to win given the predicament we had find ourselves in. A timely reminder that with the application of a bit of graft we can achieve almost anything.

George Lawrence’s Shorts: Plaque Sunday

Saturday 24 October 2019

Sam Long, the only player in the current squad to have played for Headington United in the Southern League, was on the scoresheet against Rochdale on Saturday in another 3-0 routing. It was his first goal for the club since getting the winner against Summertown Constitutionals in the Oxfordshire Invitational Vase just before he went to fight in the first World War.

Sunday 25 October 2019

The great and the good, along with Peter Rhodes-Brown, gathered at The Brittannia pub in Headington on Sunday to reveal a Blue plaque commemorating the founding of the club 126 years ago. The plaque is the result of a long campaign by fans to warn people against the dangers of carrying out pub dreams after a bucket of strong ale.

Monday 26 October 2019

Zaki the Unstoppable Sense Machine has been announced as the club’s vice chairman. Zaki will be Tiger’s representative on Earth as he’s the only board member based on the UK. ‘I’m looking forward to endlessly answering questions about the stadiumsituation from Trevor from Bicester.’ he probably said.

Tuesday 28 October 2019

Charlie Methven’s red socks and brown suede moccasins may not be enough to save Sunderland after all. Charlie and his doe-eyed cash puppy Stewart Donald brought the Mackems to Oxford on Tuesday for the Type 2 Diabetes Cup tie. The Aylesbury Ashley Young Rob Hall scored the opener and, though pegged back to 1-1, Oxford went through on penalties. Sunderland’s Will Grigg, who Methven and Donald spaffed £4m on, blazed over one of their penalties. The scouting report for Grigg said ‘No talent, funny song, must sign’.  

Wednesday 30 October 2019

Jurgen Klopp is running scared of the rampant Yellows by threatening to remove his team from the Type 2 Diabetes Cup. The next round is scheduled for mid-December when Liverpool are due to play in The Club World Cup. ‘Yes, we are a group of multi-millionaires with more resources than almost every other team in the world, but have you seen Josh Ruffels’ form lately?’ said Klopp before flashing one of those maniacal media smiles of his.

Elsewhere, a football grounds website has ranked The Kassam the 13th best in League 1, which we’re sure you’ll agree, is proof they have never been there.

Thursday 31 October 2019

On Thursday, there was so much ball juggling in the presence of a bunch of elites, we were surprised that Prince Andrew didn’t turn up. The draw for the quarter final of the Type 2 Diabetes Cup was made with the mighty Yellows being drawn at home to oil rich cash bores Manchester City

It was also the Six Minute Twenty-Five Second Fans Forum on Radio Oxford with Captain Sensible Zaki. This is a great opportunity for fans to contribute their ideas for the success of the club. Parking was one reason suggested for low crowds. The club are looking at whether Simon Eastwood could offer a valet service to entitled fans while we fill our boots with goals at the other end of the pitch.

Friday 1 November 2019

Former Oxford United tabard wearing specialist Dexter Blackstock has turned into Doctor Blackstock since retiring. He’s started a company which he says will save the NHS millions of pounds. This will be achieved by having a website of impenetrable wiffle about blockchain and over-use of online pharmacies. 

Millions of pounds? People’s health and wellbeing? Cutting edge technology? Thank goodness it’s all in the hands of someone so adept at unzipping a quilted jacket.

Match wrap: Oxford United 3 Rochdale 0

I’m in exile. I mean, I’m not a deposed opposition party leader in a despotic country, I mean I’m away.

It’s all Michael Appleton’s fault; in his first season I was so fed up with Oxford, I decided that I would no longer navigate my life around the fixture list. In fact, at the end of 2014/15, I decided the next season would be my last as a season ticket holder unless things started to look up.

Then they started to look up. Really up.

The legacy of that low remains today; October half-term is spent on holiday, this is the first year that I’m regretting it. Partly it’s because the way the fixtures have fallen, with Ipswich’s visit likely to be postponed, my next home game is probably Shrewsbury on 7 December. Mostly, I’m missing it because of what’s happening to us.

In 2014/15, I’d lost faith, the club was being passed from one owner to another, from one manager to another and while we were making material progress, it felt like I was waiting for the return of a buzz that was never likely to come. The club wasn’t delivering whatever it was I was looking for. First I was its lover, then it became decrepit and I became its carer. Now we were just tolerating each other. A relationship of duty.

I came to the conclusion I could simply pick and choose my games, be that glory supporter we all hate. But I’ve paid my dues, who would know or even care if I wasn’t there every damn week?

That season was my all-time low; I haven’t got close to it since, even during last year’s wobbles. That said, the Pep and Robinson years have risked dragging me back towards that position.

People had hoped that this summer would bring that explosion of positivity that we saw in 2015 and 2009. But it never came, if anything up until the last few weeks of the transfer window we seemed to be regressing.

But suddenly it’s clicking; the results, of course, but the club is gelling off the pitch. Friday’s announcement that James Henry has signed a two year contract is the equivalent of James Constable’s signing in 2009 or Kemar Roofe’s 2015. A major step-change, it’s as much a professional endorsement from Henry as it is a signing for us.

Suddenly we’re in a different place, the form which could have been seen as a freak set of results is turning into a new normal. We’re here, but where is that?

2016? Not really, there was something magical about that season; a reawakening of the club, a genuine shock. 2010? No. That was about recovery. What about 1996? No, it doesn’t feel like that.

So what does it feel like? Well, I struggle a little to say this because it almost feels like sacrilege to compare, but in terms of results, goals and entertainment, this is as dominant as we’ve been since Jim Smith’s double championship winning team in the eighties. I can’t remember an Oxford team being so impervious, nobody can lay a glove on us. We haven’t been like that since those glory years.

There’s still along way to go before we start properly comparing this team to that of Briggs and Aldridge, but the signs are there; if you’re not there to see it, you could be missing something really special. I know I am.

The wrap: Rochdale 0 Oxford United 0

That Brexit’s a funny thing; the most likely way of leaving the European Union by the 29 March in a way that minimises damage to the economy has been killed by the people who wanted that to happen.

It’s almost as if those who want Brexit are using it as a political tool to damage members of their own party. Or perhaps they know they’ve got it wrong and are working to grind it into the floor without losing face. Or perhaps they are just fantasists and don’t really know what they want. In short, it looks like those who said they wanted Brexit, don’t actually want Brexit.

Two hundred and twenty miles north of this debacle another was unfolding. Well, not quite; I was quite relieved with the 0-0 draw against Rochdale given what happened at Gillingham on Saturday. The difference between scoring and not scoring, though, was pretty significant. We’re still in the relegation zone, a goal would have put us 18th.

I’ve been pretty calm about the prospect of us going down; we had a tough January and negotiated it reasonably well. Some solid form between then and the end of the season would see us safe. It’s not where we want to be, but I thought we could get to May and restock.

Then I look at the table and see Rochdale are below us, Gillingham were just above us, on Saturday we’ve got Bradford who are also in the relegation zone. Then look further down our fixtures list we’ve got Luton, Doncaster and Charlton. Suddenly we’re running out of the free hits we assumed would get us out of trouble. When are we planning to run into the form which would see us safe? Like a Brexiteer not wanting Brexit, are we’re in a relegation fight but we’re not fighting.

The table gives us a sense of security; everyone else is missing the same opportunities we are. But it’s like a game of reverse chicken. Who is going to take the opportunity to blink and put in the shift needed to get out of trouble?

And this is where I’m beginning to pivot. Our players may not be as good as we’d like to believe, but they’re good enough to sit in a pack of teams with the chance to staying up. Many of our toughest fixtures are behind us and yet, we still seem incapable of creating a run to get us out of trouble. Like Han Solo trying to get to lightspeed and finding the Millennium Falcon failing him at the key moment, why can’t Karl Robinson find the edge that turns draws into wins?

I can’t answer that, but nor can he. I agree he’s been given a raw deal with the off-the-field problems, but he does seem to have been given just about the right tools and time to at least finish higher than 21st.

Robinson simply staring at his team and telling us that it was all supposed to work, there’s a point where you’ve got to get under the bonnet and find out why it isn’t. He may have the ability to deliver results in the right environment; I’m doubting it’s this is the right environment for him.

The wrap – Forest Green, Bradford, Rochdale, Plymouth

I haven’t written anything on this blog for a while. It’s not as if things aren’t going well on the pitch. Since the last post we’ve won three and lost one and we’re in the third round of the FA Cup after an excellent win over Plymouth.

Not only was that win important in terms of progressing, it was our first one away from home against a team at our level (Checkatrade aside, which it always is). We’re scoring goals and we’ve stopped conceding. The performance against Rochdale was, at times, as good, if not better than performances under Michael Appleton in League 1.

But, something is missing. The opening months of the season have been brutal, and the recovery from the start of the season has been slow. I admire Karl Robinson for getting us out of the hole we were in. I can see why people struggle to warm to him; he’s like your mate in the pub who is full of energy and a great laugh. Except when you get home and all you want to do is go to bed, he’s the one still going, plotting something, badgering you to go back out to some club or other.

He needs that energy, it’s a thankless task being a football manager, harder still turning a team around in the face of an endless stream of criticism. Even harder in the modern game when you can’t bring players in outside transfer windows. When everyone was down, he had to be up, he had to keep coming into work and putting the hours in to solidify the defence and create an attacking style that wins games. He’s done all of that.

The Nile Ranger affair, as much as it was anything, didn’t help with the mood. You can’t blame Robinson for looking where he can for players given the constraints they’re under. It’s not that Ranger doesn’t deserve a chance while he’s free to take them. If we simply punish people endlessly for things they’ve done, what is the point of trying to turn yourself around? You might as well keep trucking on with your errant ways. But still, the last thing we need is to become a club that attracts negative press or appears to put its morals aside in the pursuit of league points.

We’re also being wound up, apparently. HMRC are taking us to court in an attempt to make us pay our bills. I don’t really know how serious these things are, they sound serious. I don’t know how easy these things are to resolve. My guess is that, practically, all HMRC want is a cheque and the whole problem will go away.

Yellows Forum is not exactly a good barometer for how serious this is, but OxVox are sufficiently concerned to have written an open letter to the club about it. My guess is that it’s not the lack of money that’s the problem, more the poor administration of that money to pay bills. It doesn’t bode well for January.

But, and I think this is where my head is at the moment. What I felt sitting in the stands against Rochdale is that the club doesn’t currently have a narrative. At least not one I can easily relate to. Results on the pitch are good, and that’s an important start, but the spirit of the club isn’t there. There isn’t a buzz on social media for each game, crowds are hardly booming, the relationship with players still seems quite distant, fan culture seems a bit flat, the club doesn’t feel part of the city or fans or something.

This season has been one about the mechanics of surviving a terrible start. Perhaps the FA Cup will give us something to believe in, a spark, perhaps January will bring us some inspiring signings and we will take our form into the New Year and, like in 1996, we’ll go on a run which will bring a tilt at promotion and everyone together. But, the club have got to resolve its issues, off the field has got to feel better than it currently does, otherwise the results will be a side issue and those with a casual interest in us – who turn 6,000 crowds into 8,000 crowds – will continue to stay at home.