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.

Comment: The season it cometh

With the Aston Villa Under 19 Turnstile Operators XI cast aside by the spellbinding work of Potter it’s time to get ‘down’ to the ‘serious’ ‘business’ of the new season.

…hark! Is that the first Harry/Alfie Potter reference of the new season?…

The bookies seem to agree we’re second favourites behind Luton. They’ll be favourites simply by the fact that it’s the name most people know. To be fair, they’re unusual because weren’t the worst team in League 2 last year and they have maintained stability throughout the summer. But they won’t be the first former League Cup winner with high expectations and Andy Burgess and (probably) Steve Basham on board to find it tough going.

We’re more hardened to this level; we’ve bought pretty much the best available players at in the division. There’s an off-field stability that characterised the titles of Burton, Aldershot and Dagenham in the last three years. We have everything going for us… gulp.

Of the rest, AFC Wimbledon have momentum, Stevenage have all the attributes of a title winning side, but frequently come up short. My original tip; Cambridge, have capitulated in the last couple of weeks.

Beyond this, any team could theoretically do a Histon and sustain a challenge from nowhere, but it will be through accident rather than design.

Our biggest enemy, as always, will be ourselves. We are not patient by nature and the title will not be won by September. There will be fallow periods that we will need to tough out. But if we can approach the season in a measured and confident way it is hard to see who will stop us. Which is enough to make anyone nervous.

Stevenage Borough 1 Yellows 1

Five points, five bloody points. Some will look at the draw with Stevenage as an opportunity missed, but according to Oxblogger’s predictometer, the point and other results on Saturday served to maintain the points difference between us and the play-offs at the end of the season.

And that points difference is five points. Many Oxford fans will forever more wince at the mention of the word ‘five’. Five points deducted, five points off the play-offs. Five. Shudder.

Those five points are currently locked in a vault at Conference headquarters. The administration have revealed their findings from their internal review, and… it’s everyone elses fault.

What was the review about? Well, it wasn’t about giving points back. The club have already acknowledged that there was a material breach of the rules. They rightly avoided entering into a subjective debate over the relative moral value of that breach.

At first it seemed the league had done the right thing – a review would help address some of the evident concerns. By proactively addressing these concerns, credibility would be retained and enhanced. In short, this was a PR exercise.

To relieve the league of any responsibility, then to blame the clubs and the supporters’ trusts is a PR catastrophe for an already beleaguered administration.

There is clear evidence that the system doesn’t work – Crawley’s successful appeal, the high propensity of club’s falling foul of the rules, the evident process changes shortly after the deductions were handed out, the need for a review at all.

To claim that the system is, essentially, perfect, is beyond all reasonable comprehension. To save its position, the league needed to show some humility by playing back the challenges it faces. The increasing professionalism of the league it looks after, the scrutiny and pressure that creates, the bigger clubs, commercial pressures facing everyone. If they could then go onto commit to some kind of programme of modernization, then equilibrium would have gone some way to being restored.

But no, now the administrators have antagonized everyone. Which might mean little in the short term, but serves to put additional pressure on their decision making – the next breach will be scrutinized to death, the FA will take increasing interest, the clubs and media will get wind, the sponsors and TV will think twice about working with such an organisation. The Conference could be a really good product, decent competitive league and good prices… the administration are doing their darndest to screw it up.

None of which reduces the five points, of course.

On the feast of Stevenage

There was calm as we absorbed predictable early pressure yesterday. Players got on with their jobs of defending corners, the fans largely ignored the retreat choosing instead to reaffirm their position of being the left or right side of the London Road and hating Swindon.

There seems to be a growing appreciation of what happens in the opening minutes of games. The new found harmony helped us settle far quicker that we have done, which resulted in the best performance of the season. According to the messageboards some Borough fans think that if it was the best we can produce, then we’re a very sorry side. Granted there was no avalanche of goals; but, quite simply the gap between the two teams was so great that there was no requirement to lay siege. It was professional, comfortable and comprehensive all underpinned by a newly found confidence and work ethic.

The midgets in midfield made all the difference. The work of Foster (who could well be the aforementioned hero we need), Rose and Anaclet (also candidates) gave the likes of Burgess, Johnson and Duffy time to focus on what they’re good at. Burgess reverted to a simple game; suddenly he’s not expected to take every corner, free kick, go past players and spray forty yard cross-field passes (plus, defend and generally look lively). He did simple things well. When under pressure to perform he seems to over-complicate, the less productive he is the more he tries to win over the crowd with his showboats – when that doesn’t come off, the crowd get restless; it’s a vicious circle, but one, perhaps, he’s broken with the help of the little blokes occupying the middle of the field.

There is something about the Dagenham run which, ironically, allows some hope – they’re currently on an unbelievable run of winning six in seven. Can they sustain it until the end of the season – gut feeling suggests there has to be a blip. Last season Accrington were walking it, then had a bad March winning one in six following a ten game winning streak. A similar problem for Dagenham this year, which at this level could come at any time, could open up a chance for an unlikely comeback.

Sticking to the knitting

Strange games happen in a season, and its not really possible to draw any conclusions from the Stevenage game in the context of the rest of the season. What is a slight concern is that Jim Smith‘s decision making has become foggier. He seems to have been genuinely spooked by the Gravesend result and seems to be looking for a new winning formula at a time when we need to hold firm.

Against Tamworth he dropped Pettefer and we lost dynamism in the middle of the park, today, he moved Andy Burgess upfront and Barry Quinn into midfield. But this simply served to expose our otherwise miserly defence.

He’s clearly concerned about the midfield, and has said that he’ll look to strengthen in the transfer window. I have reservations about both Hargreaves, who lacks control, and Hutchinson, who lacks consistency. But both have shown to be more than capable in this division. My belief is that its the lack of Brevett and inconsistency of Anaclet to supply balls into the box that is putting unnecessary pressure on the midfield and arresting Burgess‘ creativity.

However, whilst Smith may be right to say that he wants to strengthen in this department; there is still too much quality in the squad to mess around with the system that was working so well earlier in the season.

The run up to January is hard enough; eight away games and just four home games between October 3rd and Boxing day. This is as big a factor in the our current form as anything. We need to hold firm until January. There’s opportunity to put clear space between us and the rest in March when we play six home games and just three away. In fact, this is when the title is likely to be decided; as we play both Dagenham and Burton before the month is out.

With the fixtures against us, we may concede the lead before the New Year but the job between now and January has to be to stick to what we know and pick up the points where we can.