Stevenage wrap – Oxford United 1 Stevenage 1

One thing psychologists increasingly believe is that punishment doesn’t work. John Lundstram’s red card against Stevenage will see him miss Wembley, but that doesn’t teach him to tackle properly. In fact, it just breeds contempt and anxiety, his frustrations at missing the game could outlast the punishment, the fear of consequences from producing another bad tackle at a crucial time could leave him a lesser player.
But surely a bad tackle can’t be left unpunished? Well, no, but look at the consequences of the challenge. He was sent off and we struggled to scrape together a point, where we could and should have comfortably gained three. Everyone around us won putting pressure on future games.
So there were consequences of Lundstram’s challenge, but to keep punishing him, and particularly ban him from a trip to Wembley, seems pointlessly harsh.
His replacement next week is likely to be Josh Ruffels, which has its advantages. For one, Barnsley won’t know him, but also Ruffels’ game is more compact. Wembley offers Lundstram a perfect opportunity to use the full range of his passing, but if that’s stopped, we’d struggle. Ruffels playing percentages may force a more counter-attacking style which could work well with the pace of Roofe, power of Bowery and unpredictability of Hylton.  
The Stevenage game felt like going to work without a belt on. Slightly awkward and uncomfortable, but not in a way that anyone outside would really notice.
Lundstram’s challenge looked very suspect on first viewing although with the benefit of slow motion it doesn’t look quite as bad. Any appeal is likely to hinge on whether the referee is considered to have made a reasonable judgement; which he did, or whether he made precisely the correct decision, which, maybe, he didn’t.
In addition, it was a lot to ask Mullins at right-back to bomb up and down the flank as Baldock or Kenny might. It all left us a bit toothless upfront rather than vulnerable at the back.
In addition, the foul for the penalty was so ludicrous, it was like the referee couldn’t bring himself to issue a red card for risk of devaluing the whole idea of sending someone off. It was, however, clearly a goalscoring opportunity and a should have been a straight red.

Once again, Roofe got into a spat with another player. Previously it was Chris Maguire against Orient, on Saturday it was Sercombe for the penalty. What’s driving this? It can’t have helped Sercombe’s preparation for the penalty. Perhaps Roofe has got an eye on John Aldridge’s goalscoring record and has lost a little bit of focus on the bigger picture, maybe he’s become a little bit too starry, maybe he knew that with 10 men, playing with one up front, his chances would be at a premium. Whatever the reason, it’s got to stop if it’s not going to cause wider problems.

Stevenage wrap – Stevenage 1 Oxford United 5

Pivotal? Ryan Taylor needed a goal to remind him he could still do it. He’s never scored loads of goals; 10 would be a decent return this season, but nobody needed him thinking that there was some sort of curse hanging over his time at the club.

The decision to allow Liam Sercombe to take the second penalty, having missed the first, was a step in the right direction in terms of shaking our spot kick voodoo. There are those who think there’s no point in practicing penalties because you can’t replicate the pressure. But, you want to get to a point where taking a penalty becomes a motor action that you don’t think about. The only way to do that is to take lots and lots of penalties to build up muscle memory. You don’t get much practice if you’re replaced on your first miss. Passing the buck around every time someone misses puts us back to square one. It also magnifies the sense of failure because the most recent plenty of each player who has a go will be a miss.

The result itself was pivotal; this period of the season could have become quite uncomfortable had we racked up a second consecutive defeat. Most of our league fixtures in November are winnable, but we’ll be disrupted by cup competitions with Braintree in the FA Cup, possibly twice, and Dagenham in the JPT. With 14 days until our next league game, we benefitted going into this period with three points.

It was a daft game, but the nature of the win was important. We haven’t scored 5 away from home in the league for 27 years. These are not normal times. There’s a certain comfort in knowing that this isn’t typical and so recent experiences of what happens to Oxford (second half of the season collapses) are not relevant references. This is quite a different team to those who’ve represented us in the recent past.

Above all, it was pivotal for the children who went on the club’s family away day. Away days are what make fans. It won’t always be like that, of course, but many will chase the dream of seeing the next one for the rest of their lives.

Coming up: Stevenage

The drop

Stevenage; the middle management rep at a trade show of football. Boorish, over-bearing and slightly threatening. Superficially successful before being found out and falling to nothingness. Or is that Graham Westley?

I came to the Graham Westley is a Twat party quite late. I originally thought that Stevenage were a well run club, doing well among a sea of badly run clubs. I envied them because we were one of those badly run clubs. Then someone pointed out the whole drinks break thing and I read about his management style and my view changed.

For a generation of Oxford fans Stevenage will probably never shake the Westley years. I suspect a lot of Stevenage fans will be very pleased about that. They’re now in the Teddy Sheringham era, who spent half a decade dating models worryingly younger before deciding to become a football manager. I’m sure this promises to be as successful as managerial attempts of previous England legends like Paul Gascoigne, Bobby Moore and Peter Shilton.

Whether they are returning to their ‘natural level’ or the product of a manager who mastered the game on the pitch with barely a clue as to how it works off it, the dog days at Stevenage appear to be over. Currently 20th they look there for the taking. It’s important that we do, with last week’s defeat to Barnet and next week’s trip to Braintree (whatever that is) we could be back at the Kassam on the 14th in a very different mental state to the euphoric one we were in after the Plymouth game.

The game is designated a Family Away Day, which is a dang fine idea by the club. While home is home and there to be protected, games tend to merge into one when you go to enough of them. Away trips shape you as a fan and leave you with the memories and stories which keep you dedicated to your club forever. Let’s hope it becomes a regular thing.

Old game of the day

Is there a greater hive of scum and villainy than Stevenage? On one hand they should be plucky underdogs who we all find endearing, but in reality they’re a horrible club with a horrible mentality.

Either way, here’s us giving them a kicking last season.

Reasons to be positive

Well, we have established a number of things about this season. Michael Appleton is a better coach then he is a manager – he will improve your players, but will he win you games?

Our owners have a preference for untried, high risk signings – the talented but injured, the talented but inexperienced, and the talented with questionable attitude. There is no evidence, currently, of a wider strategy for the club – particularly around stadium ownership. We have a sickly sweet PR machine in place which has face-aching smiles and talks in management-speak of ‘customer journeys’ and ‘USP’s’.

Commercial successes have been limited – we have a shirt sponsor who is almost certainly not paying any money for the privilege, but the pop-up club shop outside the South Stand is a good innovation.

The club are demonstrably worse off than they were 12 months ago and yet the fans are compliant in this apparent failure. Perhaps it’s out of apathy, perhaps from politeness. One thing is for sure, no other Oxford manager – throughout our history – would have been given this much time.

Is there anything to be optimistic about?

Well, change does take time and it is to football’s eternal failing that it doesn’t give things time. The preference is to continually role the dice in the hope that, by the law of averages, you will eventually throw a double six. The football is certainly better, chances are being created, logic would suggest that it should be possible to accumulate enough points for a mid-table finish.

We are on a very, very gradual upward climb form-wise. We’re unbeaten in six games and West Brom was a great night.

As optimism goes, this sounds underwhelming. But, it was highly unlikely, given the financial constraints Ian Lenagan became under, that we were ever going to go up this season. So, considering what might have been – poor mid-table football – with what should be – entertaining mid-table football – you might argue that things are progressing.

I like the new branding at the stadium, although we’re a long way from creating a decent match day atmosphere, but I quite like seeing the club badges on each stand as I walk to the ground. The portakabin club shop is a good idea, as well as generating cash and it helps centralise the match day experience.

And that’s all I have, it is too easy to be wholly positive or wholly negative about things. It’s almost, to some, an question of pride to side on an issue in such a binary, absolute fashion. Most things are in fact usually a bit negative and a bit positive.

But, the truth is that on balance, things are worse, and what is perhaps interesting is the lack of frustration that seems to be coming from the fans. Perhaps there is a point when everyone gets fed up with fighting and starts to give up.

I struggle with the idea that a decision about a manager should rest on a single result rather than a prevailing trend, so must-win games are a bit of a nonsense. However, we continue to fall short. As pretty as the football may be and as gloopy as the PR is, if we can’t win games, then you have to question what is the point of the Ashton revolution?

Yellows 1 Stevenage 2

There was always something magical about walking down the London Road to The Manor on a Tuesday or Wednesday night. As the last embers of the rush hour died to make way for the suburban calm of the early-evening mid week, the welcoming golden glow of the Manor, previously hidden from all except those who looked for it, emerged like Shangri La.

There was the illicit excitement of being out on a school night, the prospect of a break from the humdrum of the working week. I just about remember when a 7.45pm kick-off had an almost art house sophistication about it, because that’s when European games featuring Nottingham Forest and Ipswich Town kicked off, a foppish alternative to the domestic routine of a 7.30pm kick-off.

We’d go to see Oxford play. The opponents, bar knowing what colour shirts they’d be wearing, were largely anonymous. There was the odd frisson of excitement offered by a full Cuckoo Lane End when the likes of Forest, Wolves or Birmingham City visited. In the main, Karen Brady being ‘fucking slag’ aside, opponents were a team of faceless drones; like those put in place as a foil for the Harlem Globetrotters.

The walk through Headington mixed those heading for football with those heading for home with those heading for the pub with those heading for petty crime. Entering the ground released you from life outside. If you go to the Kassam there is no contrast between those seeking the football escape and those saddled with the monotony of real life. Its geographical isolation and its position amongst other monoliths demanding your attention means the light is not welcoming, it is cold and expectant.

And with the Internet and all-pervasive media, we are required to know about our opponents. When Craig Reid scored Stevenage’s second last night, someone behind me said ‘that’s his first goal for them’… why do we even need to know that?

Last night we weren’t looking to perform, we were looking to beat Stevenage. The environment in which we wanted to do it was unforgiving. It became harder as we became more anxious. The less effective we were in beating Stevenage, the more frustrated we became at our own failings. We wasted most of the game fretting over our shortcomings rather than focussing on a performance that would bring a breakthrough.

Their gameplan pivots around their fabled pre-planned 30 minute drinks break. It is so callously petty you would hope that someone in the Stevenage hierarchy might look upon it and think that although effective, it does make them look like a bunch of cock-ends. I suspect not, not while things are going well. What is so frustrating about it is that it suggests that they can control the game above and beyond the referee, stop and start it at will. The injustice of it enflamed us. By the time we regained composure, the game was lost.

Thinking about it, our response should have been to crowd around the drinks with the Stevenage players casually supping from their bottle cage. Even better would have been for stretcher bearers to sprint on, stick a neck brace on the stricken player, strap him to a stretcher and whisk him away to the John Radcliffe ‘as a precaution’.

We’re keen to create a narrative around almost every game. There has to be a reason for our rivalry. It’s part of the marketing. But if we treated every opponent as the anonymous nobodies of the Manor days and focussed on our performance rather than theirs we wouldn’t be sucker punched into throwing 3 points away.

Stevenage 0 Yellows 0, Morecambe 0 Yellows 3

From Stevenage…

Out of every team in the country, I really hate Luton Town. I’m kind of programmed to dislike Swindon, but our paths haven’t crossed enough in recent years to really develop any extreme emotional reaction to them. What about Reading? Well, meh.

But Luton really make me wretch. We seem to have had a parallel existence for nearly a quarter of a century. Their most recent ‘glory years’ coincided with ours in the mid-80’s. We won the Milk Cup in 1986, they won it a year later. More recently, as our Football League life was sucked dry by criminal negligence, theirs seemed to thrive for the same reason. Eventually they got their comeuppance and we crossed swords in the Conference theatre of war in what were brilliantly fractious affairs.

Whilst being in the Conference we seem to have picked up a number of other rivalries that I can’t get my head around. Crawley is one. OK, Steve Evans is a pretty odious character, but all the time we were in the Conference, he and they barely had any impact on our fortunes.

Stevenage is another I find completely baffling. OK, you might argue that they took ‘our’ title, but I always had them down as favourites last season because they’re a stable, well run club. Perhaps it’s just because they’re relatively local and we take a lot of fans there. Perhaps Westley said something mean about us that I missed.

In truth, Stevenage are a neatly run professional football club who are doing well considering who they are. We’ve shared a brief period of our history with them. I suspect over time we will ease away from them eventually.

I really think it’s possible to hate too many things. All in all, Tuesday night’s anodyne 0-0 draw is more significant for our play-off ambitions than it is to stoke an ill-conceived rivalry.

… to Morecambe

The atmosphere at Old Trafford during the fifth round cup-tie between Manchester United and Crawley was akin to those Soccer Aid games in which fat old pros and thingy-from-Holby-City celebrities wheeze around in the name of poor kids from Africa and thing.

The crowd, who couldn’t tell Crawley’s Bulman from Crawley bullshit, were there out of curiosity or obligation, but certainly not because they saw it as a thrilling sporting match up. In short, for all their money and brouhaha, Crawley and their 9 fans didn’t belong at Old Trafford.

Following Stevenage on Tuesday, Saturday saw the impressive demolition of Morecambe. But it was like we’d never left the Conference. With over 25% of the crowd at Morecambe being made up of Oxford fans, I’m starting to wonder whether we even belong in League 2.

Our time in the Conference saw League 2 change dramatically. Stevenage, Morecambe, Burton, Aldershot, Accrington and Hereford have all established themselves since we slipped out of the division. As a result League 2 feels like an upper class Conference. A bit like when you’re a teenager seeking a bit of sophistication by graduating from McDonalds to a Harvester. Yes, there may be some of the trappings of a resteraunt (waiters, salad), but fundamentally, it’s still a fast food joint. Likewise, League 2 doesn’t really feel like the promised land.

Not that I feel like the Premier League is our rightful place. My palette is not yet sophisticated enough for that. But a place in League 1 amongst those on the rise like us, plus a few fallen giants feels like a good place to be. After the performance against Morecambe, the likelihood that we’ll achieve that grows by the week.