Match wrap – Oxford United 3 Sheffield Wednesday 2

It’s been a funny week for the club; the first tentative step was taken towards moving to our new home at Stratfield Brake and we were linked with Jermain Defoe, a prolific Premier League striker, even though he’s thirty-nine and played nine minutes of football in the last year. If the aim is to give Matty Taylor a break this season, he won’t even get in a full episode of Homes Under the Hammer at that rate. 

On the other hand, we seem to be being bullied by Blackpool, who are threatening to recall Jordan Thornily, presumably to strong arm us into doing a deal for Cameron Brannagan. It feels like the club is both taking major steps towards becoming a big(ish) club while being treated like a small one. Plus there was whatever all that QAnon, conspiracy jibber jabber from Karl Robinson was after the game. 

Then, all the while on the horizon was Sheffield Wednesday, which crackled all week like a big game should. We even had to produce covid passes to get in. It will help protect the old and vulnerable, which will be reassuring to Defoe. It gave the game an added dimension; special fixtures are no longer defined by being ‘under the lights’ so much as being ‘inside a bio-bubble’. It truly is 2022.

One of the absolute joys of League 1 is that you get to play in big games against big clubs where you might just win. On size alone Wednesday should be in the reckoning for automatic promotion, in fact they shouldn’t be League 1 at all, but they are, and that’s for a reason. Our job is to find out what the reason is.

In recent weeks we’ve bemoaned our relative lack of strength compared to the best teams. We’ll sweep aside the smaller sides with style but breaking into the next level within the division has proved our downfall. You would expect Wednesday to be one of those clubs we struggle with; big, powerful units that strangle us at birth.

It certainly looked that way after six minutes; I’ve been holding back on criticising Simon Eastwood for his shot-stopping from distance because he’s been our only viable option in goal. I mean, the vanity of thinking that Simon Eastwood, might be reading this. Anyway, it seems that the problem runs deeper as Jack Stevens let another one skim through his fingers for 1-0. It must be a bigger problem, which I don’t have the energy to analyse. We’ve still got a long way to go.

The best teams would shut up shop for a bit. The opening phase of a game is always chaotic, it’s about establishing physical and mental territory. The fact Wednesday fashioned a goal out of it was an unexpected bonus. But then they carried on as though it was still 0-0; tackles were robust, passes were long hail-Mary’s, runs aggressive and willing. Down their right, their defender Jack Hunt seemed to be in a running battle with the fourth official which he didn’t need to have. It was like they’d had too much coffee.

Their inability to settle meant we didn’t have to pick through them; against Wycombe and Wigan we’ve had to put all our effort into making small territorial gains only to find ourselves miles from goal. Against Wednesday, it was more like navigating a maze – difficult, chaotic and without logic, but you knew there was a way through.

With no obvious pattern or logic and with half-time approaching, Marcus McGuane launched a long cross to the back post for Matty Taylor to equalise. Taylor is hardly an aerial threat, but it was worth a try in a half where anything was worth a try. 

Half-time should have brought some rest-bite; adrenaline seeps away, muscles stiffen, manager’s bring cool heads and a tactical reset. Robinson tried to bring order to proceedings by packing the midfield, mirroring Wednesday. 

It had the opposite effect of bringing order to things; with half the outfield now occupying a space the size of a matchbox, the game continued much as it had begun. It seemed we were perpetually stuck in the opening fifteen minutes of every lower league game there ever was. God, imagine if that was a side-effect of everyone being vaccinated. This might be worth mentioning to your local conspiracy theorist. 

Matty Taylor went down with a tactical injury and Karl Robinson, who’d spent most of the game coaching using a series of whistles, like he was directing a team of sheepdogs, dragged every player over to the touchline. Spare a thought for Amy Cranston at this point; it must be dispiriting studying for all those years to find that 80% of your matchday caseload is made up of players adjusting their shinpads.

Robinson bellowed his instructions, like a sleep-deprived dad dragging his purple-faced, five-year-old twins from a soft play ball pool to tell them to calm down and have a swig of Fruit Shoot. Of course, everyone ignored the plan, we were well beyond that.

Then, unexpectedly a moment of quality broke out, a slick exchange on the right played in Josh Windass and we were back to square one. It was like his dad in his pomp, just without the ears. Wednesday fans made an impressive noise, they’ve got a great range of songs, the best in the division by a mile – a full album’s worth if they ever chose to go down that route. It felt like they’d taken the spoils and… Oh, it’s 2-2.

In the fourteenth century, the Tartars were struck down with The Plague while fighting the Genoese in Italy. In desperation, they catapulted the Plague-ridden corpses over the battlements and into the city. In that spirit, with half-an-hour to go, both managers weren’t so much making substitutions as loading up their Trebuchets to launch bodies into the heart of the battle. 

Enter Sam Winnall.  Anyone hoping for Matty Taylor’s back-up to be Matty Taylor 2.0 is likely to be sorely disappointed. We’re more likely to get an embattled warhorse who have seen a few things. If Taylor’s likely deputy was a word in Countdown, he’d be a risky seven rather than a solid nine. Which is exactly what Winnall is. But this was a day for the McGuanes, Winnalls, Bodins and Mousinhos, not the players whose heads are turned by low-ranking Championship teams, players whose careers are teetering, who need to take their opportunities.

It was never going to end 2-2; because that would have been fair and reasonable. Where a goal would come from, on an afternoon like this, was anyone’s guess. From somewhere, we snaffle a corner, and of course we never score from corners. So naturally, when Billie Bodin swings the ball in, we score from a corner and its Winnall who bundles the ball home. It’s an ugly and glorious spectacle.

Jordan Thornily goes down, because of course he does, and Robinson hands John Mousinho a rifle to keep them at bay. The remaining four minutes last a couple of breathless hours. After seven minutes of injury time, the referee trolls everyone by calling a free-kick which we think is the final whistle. He’s probably chuckling inside, how have these idiots got themselves into such frothing rapture? And then, eventually, he releases us, allowing the Red Cross to come onto the field of battle to cart the dead off to the tune of Sweet Caroline. 

One hot mess of League 1 football brings the week to a close. We began it wondering whether we could step up to the big boys or forever be one of the also-rans. This did nothing to resolve which it’s to be, but if this is an indicator of where we’re at right now and it’s going to be this entertaining, I’m happy staying put for a little while.  

Match wrap – Sheffield Wednesday 1 Oxford United 2

In the years immediately after our promotion back to the Football League, when I chanced upon a Conference game on TV, I’d look for an Oxford connection. There was always a Carl Pettefer, Kevin Sandwidth, Craig McCallister or Phil Trainer plying their trade in some non-league toilet. These players were part of a rotating pool which might, at some point, gel in such a way to bring success. For players, a Conference football career was like a hall of mirrors where every turn is another dead-end. Success wasn’t so much about the individuals, but about the stability that could be offered by the clubs.

We now fish in a different pond; in the lead up to Cameron Brannagan’s opening goal against Sheffield Wednesday, Herbie Kane robbed Marvin Johnson, who gave the ball to Brannagan who beat Chey Dunkley to score. In ten years time, I’ll be writing that sentence to describe a goal in Sam Long’s testimonial game. 

The loss of Johnson and Dunkley along with John Lundstram in 2017 skittled Pep Clotet’s prospects before he’d started. Along with Chris Maguire and Curtis Nelson, who was injured early in that season, they represented the core of Michael Appleton’s League 1 squad. The world turned, everything changed, and we didn’t have the resilience to cope. These were players we relied on and had acquired through ingenuity rather than something systematic. 

One of the criticisms I’ve had this year is just how content we seem to be, lacking an edge to sneak a point from a defeat or a win from a draw. I can’t fault the club, they posted a video of Karl Robinson playing with our Down’s Syndrome team this week and he talked about reimagining what a football club should be. This lightened my mood after a turbulent week personally with the lack of fuel and food culminating in a positive test for Covid. But, in the ugly world of the first team, is it enough to be nice?

The season has been set against the backdrop of a mild September and the return of fans to games. It’s been very pleasant, but yesterday was different; football as we remember it; made edgier by the weather, the setting and the opponents. Would we cope?

Sheffield Wednesday are a classic of their genre; a huge club with momentum going in the wrong direction. At their core, they’re rotten and it will take time to weed that out, they need calm, stability and time to do it. In the immediate aftermath of the result, their fans were calling for Darren Moore’s head; he’s too nice, apparently. That sort of pressure builds until the owners wilt and another poor sucker is brought in to try and revolutionise the club in a six month window. They’ll get there eventually, it’s a question of how many false dawns they’ll need to see before it happens.

With Dunkley, Johnson and Shodipo – three players who we know can change games – you would think that promotion would be assured, but if they’re not in a stable environment, they risk losing the edge that made them different. For me, this was the key test of the opening phase of the season. A double-header away from home against Sheffield Wednesday and Sunderland could have put us on the back foot with ground to make up, we’ve done it before, but it still creates pressure. With three points and Sunderland postponed, October – with only one more away game – suddenly looks like the month to drive forward. November gets harder, but then it always does.

That opportunity comes from deep within the club; One thing that is evident from Karl Robinson’s approach is that players love it; Cameron Brannagan could play at a bigger club, even if it wasn’t a higher level, James Henry would grace any side as his sublime and timely finish showed. It’s the stability that gives you the edge to push into the 93rd minute and snatch a winner. Watch Henry’s run for the goal (it’s better on the videos shared by fans on Twitter), it’s an extraordinary illustration of his determination to have an impact. First, he swings out wide to the left before drifting into the middle and then to the front post to execute a world class finish. Any discontent, any moment of frustration borne out of a training ground argument or a casual disregard of his wellbeing could have been enough for him to give up and accept a point. Yet, he found the edge, he did the extra, he wanted to win. Cue biblical scenes in the stands, that loss of sense that gives you hope in a cruel world, righteous justification for the effort and risk of travelling to the other end of the country in a fuel crisis. Logically, there is no logic, but at that moment, it all makes sense. This was a win which found an edge from within a contented club; it gives you hope on many fronts.

Sheffield Wednesday wrap – Sheffield Wednesday 1 Oxford United 0

If you Google ‘Hillsborough’, as you might expect, you get pictures of people being crushed to death in 1989. The word is synonymous of a grim past, where it was once a step from Wembley.

Following a lower league club in the cup can become a tour of what feels like abandoned religious temples. Look around and you can see the echoes of something once glorious, but it lacks people to give it purpose. A great dinosaur, now extinct.

It’s partly because football is no longer a predominantly a social activity, its a form of entertainment. Fewer people go because it defines them, more people choose to attend based on the prospect of getting value for money. Will they be entertained? If that prospect is remote, then people stay away. We’re not particularly box office in Sheffield.

There’s a lingering feeling with teams like Sheffield Wednesday, as to what their point is. Are they preying for a rich benefactor to come along and propel them forward? Are they just treading water  because that’s fractionally less sad than giving up? And then, for us, is giving them a game an act of heroism or a missed opportunity? Is it neither?

Michael Appleton seemed to be similarly conflicted; was the deliberately weakened team a sign that he wasn’t interested in the fixture? Did it suggest that there are more important objectives to focus on? It was understandable given this was our sixth game in just 18 days, but in the name of consistency, I don’t like the idea that you pick and choose the games you compete for.

Some tried to read things into Jake Wright’s omission, but given the other changes, including nailed on starters Roofe and Hylton, I suspect this was a simple case of giving him a rest rather than anything tactical. As he approaches 30 he probably needs to manage his fitness and recovery more closely these days.

In the end it was one of those harmless defeats in Yorkshire that seem to have peppered our cup campaigns since our return to the league. We weren’t humiliated, so there’s no real risk to any confidence we’ve built up in recent weeks. We’re also not burdened another fixture to clutter up the schedule. Newcastle might have been fun, but it’s a bloody long way away. Yeovil on Saturday represents the end of a frantic opening month, now we’re out of the cup, it’s time to settle into a more controlled rhythm.

Coming Up: Sheffield Wednesday

The drop

A distraction or an opportunity? The problem with the start of the season is the mush of league and League Cup results makes it hard to fully know how you’re getting on. To lose to Sheffield Wednesday tonight is to lose an unbeaten record, does that mean anything? Logically, no, Wednesday aren’t on any critical path to promotion, but emotionally, maybe; the template of success driven out of performances against Notts County and Luton will be eroded a little bit by a defeat. Suddenly, Yeovil becomes a high pressure game; we don’t want to lose two on the trot.

And if we win? Well, that’s another step closer to an inevitable defeat – unless we’re planning on winning the trophy. It might be a Premier League team next, and they could really remind us of our own mortality. But, on the other hand, we did play West Brom last year and that ended in the almost perfect defeat, if such a thing can exist.

Really, when it comes to Cup games, you want to be like a pacemaker in a middle distance race. We want to heroically lead the race for a period before stepping off the track before you’re consumed and humiliated by your better opponents.

 

OUFC retro

Nineteen years ago we played Sheffield Wednesday in the League Cup, so history is repeating itself tonight. This one is a proper treat, the first leg at Hillsborough ended 1-1 with a Paul Moody goal. The Manor was rocking for the return leg, one of the last times it was like this for a cup tie.