Match wrap: Oxford United 3 Doncaster Rovers 0

I was getting some shopping on the way back from the game on Saturday. Someone, recognising my top, asked ‘did they win?’. This occasionally happens outside the ground, usually by kids menacingly riding their bikes, but I was 15 miles away and it was the second time it had happened in a few minutes.

I won’t describe the person for risk of unfairly stereotyping, but I wouldn’t normally associate them with having an interest in the club’s fortunes. They wanted to know who scored, hoping I’d say Tariqe Fosu.

‘Tariqe Fosu lives next door to me’ they said by way of explanation. I said he’d been great and I got the sense they took some residual pride in the fact their neighbour was getting such praise. I once told Perry Groves he was great when I randomly phoned him up to do a market research survey. I didn’t mean it, but with Fosu I genuinely did.

I wasn’t sat in my normal seat at the game; with a new angle I saw the work he put in. When I see players like that, it genuinely fills my heart with joy. He’s a jobbing footballer working his socks off for my club. ‘He’s such a lovely bloke’ the person said.

A few minutes earlier, Karl Robinson had broken off his live post-match radio interview to sort out a dispute between the Doncaster subs and the club’s ground staff.

This was typical Robinson; easy to mock, but impulsive and authentic. He talks about the importance of the whole club, he takes time out for kids, older fans, he supports the staff from the groundsmen to the ticket office. Last year it threatened to overwhelm him, with his core responsibility being the team, but he seems to have found a sweet spot.

Exactly halfway through the second-half, after a dominant display against a team we should aspire to match this season, we seemed to run out of energy and started to get pushed back. It wasn’t a surprise, we’d been so good that maintaining it for 90 minutes was always unlikely. Robinson whistled for Shandon Baptiste to come on and instantly the balance was redressed. He was in total control.

Fosu is his protege, he has the attacking qualities to simply focus on that and – let’s face it – get away with it, but yesterday it was his willingness to track back and cover Josh Ruffels, to block crosses like a seasoned full-back which was so impressive.

Robinson made the point in his post-match interview of the example Jamie Mackie offers to other players, he could have mentioned John Mousinho and James Henry. None are at the peak of their careers, Oxford isn’t their perfect destination, but they play like it is, never letting up. All over the pitch there are examples of the value of working hard and buying into and contributing to a culture.

Every season has its narrative; the 1995/96 promotion was a redemptive story about a remarkable late season run, 2009/10 was a rebirth born out of sheer bloody mindedness, 2015/16 was a marvel of science and planning.

What is emerging this year is a one-club culture; it permeates from Robinson through the players to the backroom staff and to the fans.

People often talk about the fans being the heart of a club and in one sense they are, they’re the only constant. But as the crowds show, they’re also the first to walk away when things aren’t great.

Josh Widdecombe once wrote that football wasn’t a great subject for comedy because it isn’t universal. It’s massively popular, of course, but not as all-encompassing as the general challenges of life. Getting a club to permeate beyond its core set of followers is a massive challenge. Results help, of course, but so does someone like Tariqe Fosu being a great neighbour. When random people talk to you in supermarkets about the result, you know the ripples are being felt. Perhaps they’ll buy a ticket soon, just to see him play.

Where that takes us, I don’t know. I took a bit of criticism last week saying I didn’t know whether our style could be sustained. It was genuine; it’s not a question of doubting it; I don’t know whether it can.

But, it is working, the product is great, an Oxford top is the stimulus for a discussion about the club, we can be proud that we’re part of a movement not some marginal obsession. I can talk about Tariqe Fosu’s performances with a stranger in a way I could never do about Carl Pettefer or Tim Sills. The challenge now is for it to permeate more widely, Robinson is an ambassador, but so is Fosu and so are we. Nobody knows how long this will last, but there’s something good happening here, let’s broadcast it.

Match wrap: Oxford United 4 West Ham United 0

The League Cup is our competition; we’ve beaten some of the biggest clubs in the country in it; Manchester United, Arsenal, Newcastle, Leeds, Everton. We’ve even won it, of course; it agrees with us in a way that the FA Cup doesn’t.

But, it’s mutated into a curious beast; a trophy that’s still worth winning but that clubs dismiss with weakened teams. It’s like the EFL Trophy, but where its esoteric rules are applied to each position – the left-back is an Academy player, the right-back a first choice international, the playmaker is someone you vaguely remember from another club and another time. If you’re a lower league team, playing weakened Premier League opponents devalues your achievements, but in the League Cup, are they genuinely weakened? It’s hard to know.

The difference between us and West Ham is best illustrated by our stadiums. Ours, a three-sided concrete mess in the vice-like grip of its cruel landlord. Theirs, a world class facility acquired for a fraction of its value due to the bungled negotiations of Boris Johnson. Their team, weakened or not, was bought for £157 million, ours wasn’t.

Like last season’s game against Manchester City, the match was approached as an enjoyable diversion. The atmosphere was a contented buzz, the crowd bigger than normal, but not, you know, big big.  

After two minutes of unremarkable posturing, there was an audible groan as a combination of passes down the left cut us to pieces. The noise was familiar; from a hum of hopefulness, there was a sudden collective recognition of our inferiority. It suggested a template typical of this kind of tie; we’d play well, we’d be brave, but we’d lose. Or so it seemed.

Then after a few more minutes of harmless jousting, their back-four were pushing the ball between themselves. I looked into our half – there it was, like a murmuration; the perfect form of two banks of four. They couldn’t go round us, they couldn’t go through us, and Premier League lore says you mustn’t go over us.

We were enveloped by a moment absolute clarity; a perfect defensive formation, not the confusing nine-dimensional chess Karl Robinson tries to employ to beat likes of Rochdale or Burton. It was the old Ian Atkins adage of winning the right to play. Our conservatism was aided by our selection; Sam Long will never be a quantum full-back, Elliot Moore likes nothing more than to defend. Passes are straight and short, deliberate and moderate; we weren’t just resisting West Ham, we were throttling the life out of them.

Their £157 million team was supposedly weakened with nine changes from Saturday. But, we made six including Rob Hall fresh from a year out injured and Mark Sykes, who a few weeks ago was being mooted for a League 2 loan deal. And then there was Jamie Mackie, who can count on one hand how many more chances he’ll have for games like this.

Minutes tick by and we look increasingly comfortable, but comfort means nothing; a narrow plucky defeat would be quickly forgotten, even a narrow win would be put down to their complacency, if we want to win, and for it to mean something, we needed to win properly.

Cameron Brannagan finds himself in front of goal but scuffs the ball badly wide. Rob Hall clips the top of the bar from a free-kick. We break their defensive line on a couple of occasions; Forde has a chance which rolls harmlessly wide.

Half-time comes, it’s 0-0 and we’re the better side; but half time is always critical in these games; it’s when the adrenalin drains from the legs, concentration seeps from the mind. You’re suddenly faced at the re-start with leadened limbs and slowed reactions. Like the JPT Final against Barnsley – we were brilliant for 45 minutes, but the break broke us.

Not this time; Elliot Moore spins in a crowded box to slot in the first. It’s a tight turn and the finish is threaded through the only narrow channel available to him. The nimble manoeuvring of his hulking body is reminiscent of the craft of Matt Elliot. 1-0.

Then, Jimenez saves miraculously from Mackie. Sykes passes a ball to the back post finding Matty Taylor for number two. Everyone chases Taylor down to celebrate in front of the fans; Sykes trots across the pitch to join them, but realises he’ll never get there and turns back. To think, he might have been turning out for Mansfield or Cheltenham and here he is drilling a world class cross for 2-0 and nobody’s there to congratulate him.

West Ham are woeful, you can tell from the movement amongst their fans they’re incandescent with rage. The humiliation illustrates the gap between the Premier League players and their fans – for the players this is a distraction from their millionaire lifestyles. To the fans, it’s an afternoon off work, an expensive train journey, a decent chunk out of a weekly wage. Their sacrifice is being rewarded with a performance utterly lacking in imagination and effort.

We, on the other hand, are fully committed. For Jamie Mackie, there will be few nights like this between now and retirement, for Sam Long and Josh Ruffels, this is their calling, for Cameron Brannagan and Shandon Baptiste it’s another step towards greater things. Together, we are all in.

The commitment drives a rare perfection. Every passing play becomes more pure. We’ve won the right to play; it gives Tariqe Fosu a platform to pounce on a mistake to sprint half the length of the pitch, round the keeper and slot home for number three.

And then, as the game drifts into its final moments; the result is beyond doubt; the score illustrates the dominance, the ‘weakened team’ caveat is fully extinguished – this is not just a simple anomaly.

The ball works its way to Shandon Baptiste; the future of Oxford or of football or some other absurd Karl Robinson platitude. Above all, it’s a boy with a talent that has been blighted by a year of injury. He clips the ball over the first defender and drives into the box, feints to go past the second and rolls the ball deftly into the far post for a conclusive fourth.

It’s the bluest sky, the perfect silence, the purest diamond; Baptiste wheels away. It’s unfettered perfection. These are moments of rare fleeting beauty. Eventually a cloud will spoil the perfect sky, a noise will break the perfect silence, but right there and then in that very moment, it’s magical. These gifts, in our hard and unpleasant times, are rare and so fleeting, you owe it to yourself to simply drink it in.

Match wrap: Lincoln City 0 Oxford United 6

It’s fair to say that Karl Robinson splits opinions; even within individual opinions, there are split opinions. It’s not uncommon to hear things like ‘I can’t stand the man, but I don’t think he should be sacked’ or ‘I respect what he does, but he can’t go on like this’.

Whether it’s the start of a season, game or interview, it’s difficult to figure out Robinson’s modus operandi. There seems to be a common theme of there being a blizzard of confusion followed by some kind of clarity or success. Is that deliberate? Is it luck? Is the assumption that if you throw enough Karl Robinson at a wall, some of it will stick? Is there a science to all this that we can’t see?

It’s almost, and I use this comparison advisedly, Trump-esque; it is near on impossible to figure out whether Robinson is a stable genius, or wanton lunatic.

The result is similar to Chris Wilder’s time at the club; Jamie Cook once described him as a polarising figure; ‘a great coach but a terrible man’. The result was streaks of poor form, followed by unlikely wins and unbeaten runs. Whether Karl Robinson can be defined in quite such a binary way, I don’t know, but he’s consistently inconsistent.

On Saturday, Michael Appleton was in the stand preparing to take over our opponents Lincoln. Appleton is a methodical theoretician, a scientist of the game. He’s a good fit for Lincoln who seem to have learnt through the appointment of the Cowley brothers about the power of building.

It was Robinson’s worst nightmare; following the debacle against Bolton, he not only had to get us back on track, but do it with one of Oxford’s greatest managers glaring down on him.

And then he goes out and does this. Seven shots, six goals, all of the highest quality. A record breaking win, the win we thought we might get on Tuesday, and a moment of utter razor sharp clarity in a sea of confusion.

Tariqe Fosu, as we’re regularly reminded, has known Robinson for years. You could argue that not only does he understand Robinson’s methods, he’s a product of them. Perhaps it’s of no surprise that he seems to have settled so quickly in a way that others haven’t. Where Luke Garbutt, Sam Smith and perhaps Ben Woodburn made slower starts, Fosu is flying because he knew what to expect and what was expected.

The Lincoln result is no more an indicator of our prospects for the season than the Bolton result was, finding the new normal under Robinson feels like an endless quest.

While doing a little side project on the best players of the 1990s, I found a surprising fact. Between 1990-1999 Oxford United fielded 107 players, between 2000-2009 that number doubled with a similar number for 2010-2019. If Robinson is to succeed, he needs players to understand his methods, and if you’re new to that, it can take time. Without that, you’re always playing catch up.

The challenge is that modern football doesn’t offer stability. The turnover of players is so great, the onus is on the manager to be clear about his intentions and for them to respond. Last season it took months to get the message over and while this season it seems to have settled more quickly, the contrasts between Bolton and Lincoln show, it’s still not clear which Oxford United we are.

George Lawrence’s Shorts: Tattoo fixer

Saturday 14 September 2019

After a seven game winless streak, KRob was thankful for the fact that toothless Tranmere were in town and that Tariq Fosu is made of helium. Fosu collided with a gust of wind to win the first of two penalties which set us on the way to a 3-0 win. James Henry hoovered up both spot kicks with Cameron Brannagain, again, slamming home a third, which was the second, and his fifth of the season. Elliot Moore was due to start but was struck down with The Newlyweds Curse, a back spasm.

Sunday 15 September 2019

Scotland manager Steve Clarke may be set to turn to Chris Cadden to shore up his leaky defence. Scotland have had a torrid start to their Euro 2020 qualifying campaign having conceded 9 goals in their last three games. Clarke’s looking for someone to better that, though with Cadden being part of a back four who recently conceded sixteen goals in six games, it might not quite be the betterment he was thinking of.

Monday 16 September 2019

The slayer of Edgar Davids and owner of Coventry’s most prodigious chin since Jimmy Hill, Andy Whing has a new job as coach at Hereford United. He’ll be bringing all his experience to his new role, creating a team of tough tackling midfielders with a never-say-die attitude. “All we want is a team of Andy Whings.” said Hereford owner Geoff Hereford.

Tuesday 17 September 2019

A live-streamed video of a bunch of kids from Bolton beating up some lame old men surfaced online on Tuesday. KRob’s approach to our away trip to Bolton Wanderers was the equivalent of holding a child at arm’s length by putting his hand on their forehead while they swing punches just out of reach. Sadly, KRob badly misjudged their range and took one clean in the knackers, limping away with a 0-0 draw.

Wednesday 18 September 2019

Lincoln City are planning to roll out the big guns in order to replace messanic manager Dan Cowley who has gone to Huddersfield. And there are no bigger guns than perpetual managerial bridesmaid Michael Appleton who is odds on to take over at Sincil Bank. MApp could be facing KRob in the technical area for our visit to Sincil Bank on Saturday. KRob is seeing whether he can get a girdle ordered on his Amazon Prime account as we speak. 

Thursday 19 September 2019

It was the Six Minutes Forty-Seven Second Fans Forum on Radio Oxford where Niall, don’t call me Niall, McWilliams was the Johnny Byrne on the spot. Fans nearly missed the opportunity to ask about the stadiumsituation which will be 100% resolved before the end of the year. McWilliams also publicly backed KRob in his role. Uh oh.

It’s a name synonymous with wanton violence and the destruction of humanity. But, enough about Christophe Wilde; the Bin Laden family are lining up to take a stake in Sheffield United to become Wilde’s boss.

Cameron Brannagain was subject to The Daily Mail’s Secret Scout report. The report admired Brannagain’s passing, competitive spirit and the fact he’s a white English man because they’re a minority in this country nowadays ain’t they?

Friday 20 September 2019

It’s Lincoln tomorrow, and who’s that sitting in the opposition bench doing bicep curls? Holy cow, it’s MApp. The man with more tattoos than Tatu on Tatooine has taken over the hot seat just in time to unleash an unedifying defeat on his former charges. Hold onto your hats everyone, MApp’s back in the game.

Match wrap: Oxford United 3 Tranmere Rovers 0

There were two people behind me for the win over Tranmere on Saturday. Irregular visitors to the Kassam, they talked knew how we were getting on but still referred to each player by number. One of them had already seen us this season. “It was much better than this” he said. We’d played four minutes.

It surprises me that people still assume football to be easy. That combining the activity of eleven people at speed, while another eleven try to stop them should effortlessly flow. “What do they do in training all day?” one said. Oh, I suspect they sit around talking about how brilliant they’ll be on Saturday.

Mackie was ‘too slow’ and Fosu ‘too lightweight’. In fact, Mackie is not quick, it’s different – too slow implies that he has speed he not using. Fosu is slight, so he won’t hold the ball against a defender the size of Manny Monthe but it means defenders have to be more careful, which weakens their game. Fosu won a lot of position simply by using this perceived weakness.

There were moments on Saturday when the combinations faltered at the final hurdle. On two occasions, Jamie Mackie made runs to the near post, only for the ball to go behind him and roll harmlessly across the goal. There were groans of frustration at the inaccuracy of the cross and Mackie’s poor positioning. In fact, both had been perfect; what was needed was someone at the back post to put the ball away.

In the first half, twice we broke from defence, while Mackie battled for the loose ball, there was a great thick defensive line of yellow leaving the box at an unremarkable speed. On the third occasion, James Henry put in a spirt of effort to burst out of the line giving Mackie an outlet and us an attacking shape. Those moments can be decisive, and they’re not there yet.

It was the emergence of experience that gave us the win; Fosu’s moment of petulance in wanting to take the first penalty was understandable, but the experience of Henry and Mousinho to go with logic ensured the goal. Mackie always plays the referee as well as the game he used his strengths well. Henry’s calmness from the spot to follow the process and get the job done tipped the balance.

What’s missing are the finishing touches; Ben Woodburn almost doesn’t want to score enough. Those Mackie runs gave openings that could have given him simple tap-ins. It’s a desire that gave Liam Sercombe a hatful in 2015/16 and is giving Cameron Brannagan his goals this year.

Tranmere looked like a team that have been promoted too quickly. They don’t seem to have the bank of players to perform at this level. They had gaps as well, particularly up front, but our gaps were smaller, which was the difference.

The table still looks a bit of a muddle, Wycombe are third, Lincoln have lost four out of five. It’s possible others are suffering similarly, it makes for an interesting and exciting league, but the quicker we can link everything up, the faster we’ll climb the table.

Match wrap: Sunderland 1 Oxford United 1

I make no secret of not particularly liking the start of the season. I used to love it, I’d really feel the gap between the end of one season and the beginning of another. I loved the new kits and players and, above all, the renewed sense of hope and anticipation. Now, football is everywhere, all the time, so a new season is not really anything new. It’s just, well, the continuation of football.

What I’ve learned to enjoy more is the rolling narrative as the year progresses, the sense of emerging drama, the battle through the winter and the mad dash, exhausted and battered, to some kind of conclusion in May. In that sense, I prefer my football more Scandi-drama than The Fast and the Furious.

I was a bit split about what would make a good result on Saturday. We’ve had a good final week of the summer and there are signs of optimism. A win, while capping it off nicely, might also have tipped expectations too far. Beating anyone on the opening game of the season is positive, beating Sunderland away could have created a sense that we were fixed, when we are anything but. Anyone who remembers the 4-1 win over Portsmouth, or going back 20 years, a 2-1 win at Stoke where Steve Anthrobus scored the winner on his debut will know these results are meaningless.

Even when we took the lead, you could sense the immediate optimism; Rob Dickie had become an able replacement for Curtis Nelson, Ben Woodburn was a cut above in quality. Yes, perhaps, but judge them in 15-20 games, not on the basis of the opening twenty-five minutes when minds and bodies are sharp and the weather is good. The mark of a good team is not whether you can perform, but for how long you can sustain it.

Equally, a defeat could have popped our fragile ego, if it had been mid-season, we might have shrugged it off, but seeing ourselves sitting dead last in the table, as we did last year, could have sent us into a deep depression. A defeat also would have put greater pressure on the games coming up. Last year’s opening fixtures were tricky, this year is no different.

Of course, in the moment, during the ninety minutes I desperately wanted us to win, but in the grander scheme a draw is almost a better result. We’ve taken a point in one of the most difficult fixtures of the season, we only conceded because of a penalty and one of our new signings got the goal.

In a game of cricket, it’s a bit like opening an innings with a solid forward defensive rather than slogging the ball out of the ground for six. Now, we have to build.

George Lawrence’s Summer Shorts – Fosu’ll Fuel

Monday 1 July 2019

We open the week looking into a gaping chasm from here to the first friendly of the season – WHICH IS NEXT FRICKIN’ SUNDAY OR THIS SUNDAY IF YOU’RE READING THIS NEXT SUNDAY. We regret to inform you that there is no more go-to no-news news-carreon to feed off as Gino van Kessel’s Gold Cup quest is over. The USA finally put plucky Curacao to the sword with a 1-0 win in the second round of the tournament. We are bereft.

Elsewhere, in science, we’ve learned the largest unit of time is called a supereon. Previously determined by geological formations, scientists now describe this as the unit of time between everyone knowing that Tariqe Fosu was signing for us and the official announcement that he had. That day finally came on Monday.

Tuesday 2 July 2019

Deep fried pastiness ahoy, Sunday is the Steve Kinniburgh derby at Ibrox. Those thinking Rangers have been seduced by the glamour of a friendly against Oxfordshire’s finest need to think again. According their Head PT Instructor, Stevie G’s Tax Avoiding Army are wargaming the rigours of playing second rate European football followed by fifth rate domestic football every week until they’re knocked out by Maltese part-timers in mid-July. We don’t know if we’re Lazio or Cowdenbeath in their fetishised role play.

Wednesday 3 July 2019

Back home, things have gone a bit Thames Valley Royals as Oxford United director Horst Geicke has been announced as a Director of RFC Prop, a holding company of Royal Elm Park Development who are developing the land around the Madjeski Stadium in Reading. We’re sure this is absolutely fine.

Thursday 4 July 2019

Jamie Mackie has been giving a little insight into how preseason has changed “it’s all scientific now” said Mackie like a baffled pensioner trying to play Fortnite with his grandson “the balls are out straight away.” he added, looking knowingly at Gavin Whyte.

Our favourite Ghanaian football website, where everything is true, claims Tariq Fosu’s signing on fee was £500k which also claims “he made 27 appearances last season where he made 27 appearances” – that’s an encouraging ratio of 1 game per appearance.

Friday 5 July 2019

Hark! The gentle lilt of the lute, for it is GLS The Bard with songs of bafflement and bemusement, Bard, sing us a tale from the kingdom…

Hey nonny nonny…
KRob is frustrated, he doesn’t know what to do
He wants to sign Chris Cadden, The Mackems want him too
Sunderland can’t sign him, they’ve problems of their own
Red Bull want to buy their club, Stewy’s waiting by the phone
Until their deal is done, then Cadden’s is on hold
But Columbus want him also, or so we have been told
But, Crew can’t sign him either, too many from overseas
Cadden can’t be added, until another leaves
And yet they may still sign him, then loan him back to us
Or perhaps it’ll just collapse, because of all the fuss
So KRob is frustrated, he doesn’t know what to do
He thinks he might get Cadden, but he thinks he might not too.
With a hey nonny nonny…

Ah, thanks the bard, there he goes, on his merry way – those tights are a bit unforgiving, don’t you think? 

Elsewhere, wandering down the aisle of where they stock all the predictables at our local Co-Op, we find that MApp is being lined up by Doncaster Rovers to just miss out on their manager’s job.

Saturday 6 July 2019

KRob’s excited, but then what other mode does he have? The whiff of Tunnock Teacakes and Tenants Super is in the air as we head north for our first friendly of the summer. “They have some world class players” said KRob using a pretty liberal definition of the term – that is, players who can unequivocally be classed as living in this world. To illustrate the fact, among their number is Wes Fotheringham, who lest we forget, lost two derbies playing for Swindon against Oxford in 2012 before being released because it was deemed, and we’ll say this very slowly, he was not as good as The Red Card Ronaldo; Lawrence Vigouroux. 

Sunday 7 July 2019

To those who have made the trip up to Glasgow staring into a grey slate sky, squinting to make out the features of people sitting opposite you. Yes, this is what they call daylight. The day has come, let football reign and for the 700 mile round-trip to be rewarded with something more competitive than Peter Rhodes-Brown’s hurdling over advertising boards half-time relay race. Now, we don’t want to ruin anyone’s holiday to what the World Health Organisation once dubbed ‘Europe’s Murder Capital’ but while you’ve been away travellers have moved into the Kassam Stadium car park.

‘Giein it laldy, ya great bawbag!’ as they might say in the streets of Auchenshuggle.