Match wrap – Shrewsbury Town 1 Oxford United 2

I recently read an article about luck in football; to be a professional footballer, you need to be lucky enough to have the physical attributes to play, you need to be spotted, to avoid injury, to have a support network to sustain your development, to maintain the mental stability to play consistently well, to play in a position which a club actually wants to fill, for a club that has the resources to sign you. And so on.

Take, for example, someone like Marcus McGuane; he was signed by Arsenal and Barcelona and on Tuesday he played against Thame United in the Oxfordshire Senior Cup. It’s the same person with the same attributes. Had a few more things gone his way in his career he might have been playing in the Champions League. Had more things gone against him, he may have been playing for Thame, or perhaps not at all.

There’s so much luck – those incalculable moments beyond your control – that when you spread it across a whole squad and consider how narrow the margins between success and failure are at the end of the season, it might feel like the outcome is largely down to fate.

In 1981 Aston Villa won the League title using fourteen players. That couldn’t have been planned or expected; in normal circumstances you would expect a few injuries and for players to lose form or focus. While those fourteen players represented the best group in the country, luck played a huge part in avoiding injuries and losses of form that sustained them throughout the season.

Naturally, you can hedge against bad luck by investing heavily in players. You certainly get luckier when you’re able to buy four quality strikers rather than one. Chelsea fans crying over their current predicament may not be able to see just how lucky they’ve been having a wealth of talent at their disposal, in the lower leagues, whole seasons can rest on a single injury.

We might reasonably think we’re running low on luck at the moment, our two marquee signings from January – Marcus Browne and Sam Baldock – are out for an indeterminate amount of time. We have other long-term injuries to Alex Gorrin, Elliott Moore and James Henry, and as of this week, we’ve had illness and Covid sweep through the squad.

None of this is new, injuries are common but this is our third Covid outbreak, with no restrictions in place nowadays, the spread of Covid is being left to chance. You might take the view that because it’s unlikely to lead to death or hospitalisations, that it doesn’t matter, but it certainly still has the capacity to hobble our promotion chances.

Each blow feels like it hits a little deeper; when we lost Jordan Thornily we still had four centre-backs. When we lost Elliott Moore, we could still field a solid defensive line-up. When we lost Ciaran Brown, we needed to turn to John Mousinho, who not only hasn’t started a match in 18 months, but was forced to play his second full game in a week.

Behind Mousinho was Simon Eastwood; another reliable lieutenant in the squad. Eastwood may not be the immediate first choice keeper anymore but he’s clearly a good club man and an example to other players. Karl Robinson recognises that, hence the new contract he signed last season. Robinson may be wowed by flair players and wingers, but he’s smart enough to know he needs a bedrock to build on.

Mousinho and Eastwood may not expect to play every week, but their level-headedness, willingness and consistency is worth its weight in gold. They don’t fly into a rage and demand a transfer when they don’t play, they don’t need three or four games to get up to speed. They never get too high or too low.

Are we lucky or unlucky? We’ve taken some deep blows this week, big enough hits to influence the outcome of the season. The performances this year deserve a good result, but we may still fall short given the fixtures to come. On the other hand, you might argue that we were lucky enough to be facing a team like Shrewsbury at a time like this. But as much as they don’t score, nor do they concede – they have the third best defence in the division despite being 18th – so to come home with all three points is still a pretty remarkable result.

Overall, with people like Mousinho and Eastwood in the squad – along with dependable regulars like Brannagan and Taylor – we have a spine of reliability. The vagaries of injuries and form are a constant challenge, but in the case of Mousinho and Eastwood, their value comes from simply being present, setting an example and being conscious that this has a value. That’s not luck, the squad is designed that way, the heart of the club is right there.

Match wrap – Oxford United 2 Shrewsbury Town 0

At one point during a break in the second half against Plymouth on Saturday, Karl Robinson animatedly delivered some coaching points to whoever was standing closest to him.

I say coaching point, it may have been a demonstration of the latest move he’d learnt at his online Tai Chi class. He then brought another player into the discussion, then another. By the time he called over Steve Seddon, who was idly supping on his water bottle waiting for the re-start, five players were involved. 

Was he trying to make a simple point applicable to half the team, an elaborate tactical adjustment involving five players? Or, was it simply an overspill of nervous energy cascading out of him as the game progressed?

Robinson’s hard to judge; his understanding of football is clearly no fluke, he articulates what a football club is like no other manager I’ve seen, in interviews he can ramble incoherently and barely contain his emotions. It’s hard to know just which of his theatrics are pre-meditated; are the elaborate shrugs and pedantic arguments about his toe being on or over the white line of his technical area a deliberate ploy? 

There is a view that the manager’s job is done once the players take to the field, but maybe there’s more to it than that, extending to cajoling players, strategising against opponents and destabilising the officials as the game progresses. Or maybe it’s just shouting your frustration into the night’s sky until someone does something you intended for them to do.

After it was revealed that he was waiting for the results of a PCR test, he was conspicuous by his absence against Shrewsbury Town. Evening league games are often sedate affairs anyway, so generating an atmosphere or sense of urgency can be difficult, harder still without the manager chiding his team like the owner of a racing tortoise that’s going off course.  

I was hoping to see him patrolling the touchline via an iPad strapped to a broom handle taped to a remote controlled car. Instead we got Craig Short and John Mousinho studiously observing the proceedings like junior chess champions. It was like the rhythm section of a band without a front man; there was a pleasant groove but we really needed someone in gold lurex hot pants doing the splits.

The performance matched the politeness on the touchline. Shrewsbury didn’t seem in any rush to take the points and neither were we. There have been complaints about the atmosphere at the stadium this season and this was unlikely to stir anyone’s loins.

Apparently Robinson had his say at half time via FaceTime, presumably throwing tea cups around his kitchen as his wife dived to protect their best monographed crockery. However he did it, it seemed to work, we came out with a renewed sense of urgency and a desire to take a few risks.

Where we’ve turned to people like James Henry or Marcus Browne to change games in the past, it was surprising to see Mark Sykes breaking lines and making the difference. There was a great tweet on Saturday describing him as a great footballer who can’t play football; a little harsh but I get the sentiment, he can flatter to deceive. This season he seems to be maturing, whether it’s talking to frustrated fans at Wimbledon or as he did last night, helping to fill the void of enthusiasm left by Robinson.

Sykes’ goal was the classic example of the value of having a punt, his strange skiddy daisy cutter was like a Bake Off contestant adding turmeric to a cheese flan – it could have been a disaster, but actually made all the difference. In what was an insipid atmosphere, we needed someone to give us a spark. Cameron Brannagan, a ball of energy that can be hard to channel, added a second to seal what was ultimately a poorer display than Saturday, but with a better outcome. Go figure.

There are many people who get frustrated by Robinson’s clowning, but as he’s likely to be absent from the training ground and touchline for the next 10 days at least, we may need to dig a little deeper to find the reserves of creative energy that will keep the momentum going over the next couple of weeks.