Midweek fixture: FA Cup 2nd Round memories

There’s no such thing as a good FA Cup 2nd Round game; it doesn’t have the anticipation of the 1st Round, nor the prospective glory of the 3rd Round. Although sometimes it’s OK.

2018 Plymouth Argyle 2-1

2018/19 was a difficult season, particularly on the road; we couldn’t buy a win until late in the season. There was a grim inevitability about our trip to Plymouth in November. Or was there?

2013 – Wrexham 2-1

After a delayed 1st Round game at Gateshead, we faced Wrexham just four days later. It looked like we might end up on the end of a giant killing until James Constable sparked a revival.

2012 – Accrington Stanley 3-3

So much more than a game. After it was announced that former Oxford player Mitchell Cole had died from the heart condition, we headed to Accrington Stanley for a tie which just wouldn’t let up. 2-1 down with four minutes to go, 3-2 down 2 minutes into injury time, then Michael Raynes popped up at the back post. A game of pure spirit. Afterwards Chris Wilder was absolutely magnificent.

2002 – Swindon Town 1-0

OK, sometimes the second round can serve up something special. Swindon Town visited the Kassam for the first time in 2003. It was Jefferson Louis who stole the show glancing home the winner. Then he immortalised himself in Oxford folk lore being filmed naked live on TV while celebrating our third round draw with Arsenal.

1995 – Northampton Town 2-0

A couple of weeks after beating Dorchester 9-1 in the first round, Northampton came to The Manor. The win catapulted us forward to a memorable cup run and, in the league, promotion.

Dean Saunders’ winger’s side-footed block tackle

Whether it was his unashamed bias, his rejection of video evidence or his invention of the  ‘wingers’ side footed block tackle’, Dean Saunders practically re-wrote the punditry rule book with his performance during our 2-1 win over Wrexham.

I like BT Sport’s mix of Premier and lower league domestic football along with its broad smattering from the European leagues. It’s a more intelligent selection than Sky’s binary focus on the Premier League and La Liga.

But, BT are facing the age old problem of how to cover the lower echelons and the early rounds of the FA Cup. They’ve clearly listened to the bleating of people like me who complain at the corporate distance of the top flight. Lower down, football is more ‘real’, that’s what they need to capture.

Sky’s coverage of the Football League is just a pared down version of the Premier League big boys, so BT have gone grittier. Presenters get right in amongst the players and we get to see inside the dressing room. It’s all designed to put the viewer at the heart of the game.

Getting ‘in there’ doesn’t capture the gritty realism of ‘real’ football. There’s a sense of theatre to football at all levels, the last thing you want is to have the myth of your gladiatorial heroes destroyed by having to look up your left back’s shorts.

BT specialise in being overstaffed; Robbie Savage and David James, looking like Barbie and Action Man lookalikes hired for a corporate party, join Jake Humphreys for a wander around the pitch. There’s a cameo from Mark Creighton, a regular in their non-league coverage, but on this occasion on duty in a Wrexham tracksuit, talking about his career coming to an end and at the same time offering a small dose of less-than-objective punditry. Dean Saunders is in the stands, but more of him in a minute.

James talks from a position of complete ignorance about Chris Wilder’s application for the Portsmouth job (“Unbelievable situation”, Saunders said later – a man seemingly surprised and incredulous about the most mundane things). You have to ask yourself why they need so many people offering so little? It all seems a lot of effort for an game of this insignificance.

Then, just before kick-off, things slot into place, we’re treated to a weird in-game advert for Bet365 and Ray Winston barking like an east end criminal. He might as well be saying “Oi, fuck this lot, let’s make some fucking moolah”.

It’s clear this type of game is basically a platform for gambling. Like those obscure horse racing channels broadcasting 24/7 with no real difference between one race and another. The scourge is in-game betting, which allows people to place money on fragments of the game. It means you’re actually compelled to watch to see whether your bet comes off rather than simply wait until the end to find out the result.

In the context of the emerging match fixing scandal, you begin to wonder how pre-planned this stuff might be. In injury time Dave Kitson inexplicable draws a yellow card for kicking the ball away (‘Experience, taking one for the team’ said Dean Saunders) it’s probably nothing, but it makes you wonder sometimes.

While not fixed; BT have written the general narrative of the fixture in advance. The double header of Gateshead and then Wrexham offered a decent chance of an upset. We were expected to negotiate a Skrill Premier minefield. The appeal of the fixtures were dependent on us losing one of them.

That’s fine; it’s the par for the course. The art form, from a TV perspective, in the early rounds is spotting the potential fixtures which will evoke the magic of the cup and a giantkilling. But, once the decision is taken, the match should take care of itself. However, by the time we got to the Racehorse Ground, the game was devoid of balance and objectivity.

Wrexham started well, but they weren’t as dominant as the commentators suggested, they had a chance which Saunders thought the striker should simply have prodded home ignoring that he was a good 6 yards away from the ball when it was played in. On the other hand, Johnny Mullins hit the bar; a fact completely ignored for the rest of the game.

Then there was the tackle; Saunders, at this point, simply lost all sense. Williams crumpled in a heap as Clarke slid into him. Not a foul, said Saunders. In fact if Williams had ‘tackled properly’ he wouldn’t have hurt himself. It was a standard ‘winger’s side-footed block tackle’ reckoned Saunders. I’ve never heard of such a thing, but it appears to be the art of putting your leg in the way of a shin-high sliding leg breaker.

This released Saunders from any obligation to objectivity. We heard about ‘Keatesy’, ‘Deano’ and ‘Clarkey’. Wrexham players who were ‘unstoppable’, ‘unplayable’, ‘unbelievable’. Not to mention Andy Morrell, who could be the greatest player of them all. In essence, Wrexham were one of Europe’s all-time greats according to Saunders. There was at least one occasion where he referred to them as ‘we’. Hmm.

Their goal, moments after the winger’s side-footed block tackle, was a good one. It gave Wrexham a marginal advantage in a game where they were marginally better, but only marginally.

At half-time BT froze the tackle at point of contact. Williams’ leg contorted out of shape; showing how close he was to serious damage. “Slow motion makes everything looks a lot worse” said Saunders refusing to back down, and simultaneously breaking a decade of pundit lore by dismissing the all-healing powers of technology.

After an early fright, we controlled the second half. Williams gave us the lead and Saunders hopped over the fence. The killer ball came from ‘Kitson obviously’ – a player he’d criticised persistently throughout the first half. Moments earlier he had flicked away Constable’s excellent goal with the dismissive ‘well he’s a goalscorer, that’s what he does’.

Despite Saunders’ belief that Wrexham were akin to Bayern Munich, the game was going to form. Wrexham were simply doing what Conference teams do. In League 2 teams tend to be erratic from game to game, in the Conference the variations are within games themselves. Wrexham had been good for a half, but struggled to sustain it. We, on the other hand, were good in both halves, but better in the second. A late Ryan Clarke save aside, we controlled the game. Given that Clarke would have been disappointed to let that one in, the fact he didn’t made it a good rather than great save. He was just doing his job. The Wrexham ‘threat’ was muted.

The game went with form, ultimately, as these things usually do – which is why giantkillings can be so thrilling, because they’re rare. Afterwards, David James asked some clunky questions of James Constable, which he shrugged off as though in a challenge with an off-balance centre back. And we were through.

Maybe there’s a market for heavily editorialised football coverage. There are few neutrals at a game of football, so TV is being noble but not empathetic by remaining neutral. That’s how boxing usually works; there is a bad guy and a good guy. Perhaps that’s how it should be; the presenters and commentators pick a side, like a fan, and present in a relentlessly bias way. I wouldn’t mind that so much, if they tell me beforehand.

Yellows 1 Wrexham 0

Tuesday night was like sending the boys off to war. Admittedly, with all the changes, it was like sending off the Catering Corps whilst the real soldiers scored big time with the local butchers’ daughter.

It’s certainly reassuring that we can more than just compete putting out a side like we did. I can’t be the only one whose mind drifted to 2007. Then we were being held together by bits of string and a dwindling ember of hope. Duffy and Burgess’ form had long deserted them, Rose and Yemi promised to threaten, but never did. Gilchrist was like a broken Action Man, Foster sidelined with a nasty leg-snap, Brevett and Johnson preoccupied with restocking on Werthers Originals and emptying their bedpans. We were a ragged unit, with only Billy Turley maintaining any form, and let’s face it, dignity.

This time around the second string can dismiss a startlingly average Wrexham side, whilst the big boys remain, despite all that’s happened, a force majeur.

Looking at it in the round, it’s been a spectacularly successful ‘regular season’, coining an increasingly popular Americanism as though we’re all having tailgate parties and supporting the Pittsburgh Steelers. Add in the likely six points from Chester, and you’re starting to look at a points-total that would have won us the title in years’ past. We have amassed, by a mile, the best points total since we’ve been in this godforsaken place.

Is it different this time? Last time the play-offs felt like we were visiting a curmudgeonly old uncle dying a slow diseased death. Compelled to visit, hating every minute, wishing to simply scream “I hate you, why don’t you just fuck off?”. This time it is different, like supporting a Colombian top flight team run by a drugs cartel; intense, exciting, but no less terrifying.

Wrexham 0 Yellows 1

On Tuesday we proved we can handle the pressure of big crowds, and yesterday we proved we can beat Wrexham away. The former is likely to be more significant than the latter in the context of the season.

So, it’s been a week for dispelling hoodoos. So while we’re in the mood, let’s deal with a taboo – that is: we’re not that good and neither is Chris Wilder.

If you haven’t closed your browser at my blaspheming, let me explain. We’re not going to win the FA Cup, FA Trophy and remain unbeaten in the championship. We will lose and when we do we’ll be in uncharted waters.

In 2006/7 there was hysterical talk of an unbeaten season. We came up against a high-flying Wycombe in the FA Cup and two things happened. Firstly, we lost. And secondly we played well. We subsequently went into next game at Gravesend and Northfleet thinking we were a couple of lucky breaks from being promotion contenders for League 2, let alone the Conference. We lost to then too, then won one in three months.

Luton on Tuesday proved that although we hold a seven point lead, the gap in class is nothing like that. When we do lose they will be snapping away a la Dagenham. And if not them, then Stevenage or Cambridge. A healthy fear of defeat will guard against complacency.

I know it’s different this year; we’ve got Chris Wilder. In classic Wilderian; he’ll keep us ‘Bang At It’. But with another rumour surrounding him – this time that Rotherham are interested in his services – there is a possibility that he won’t finish the season with us.

We shouldn’t become over-reliant on him – moreover we needn’t be. Wilder’s impact has been fantastic, of course, but he couldn’t have done it without the work of Kelvin Thomas, the fans paying the money, the players putting in the graft. Should he go, then most of that machine will remain in place. What’s more, Wilder isn’t irreplaceable; if we do it right – like we did when Wilder was appointed – then the momentum can be maintained. It’s the club in its totality that’s successful, not just Wilder.

My point is that if we mythologise the team and it’s manager it will be a deep shock when reality bites. I’m just preparing myself; that’s all.

Yellows 0-1 Weymouth, 6-3 Eastbourne, 0-2 Wrexham

In isolation, the defeat to Wrexham was predictable and shouldn’t, in itself, be a cause for worry. There is likely to be a renewed vigour surrounding them at the start of the season – that curious phenomenon of any relegated team – and, well, we’ve never really excelled at the Racecourse Ground.

What was less predictable is that we would fail to pick up points against Weymouth or Barrow. This has left us in an odd position. Statistically, we should be worrying – this is relegation form and we’ve been playing relative lightweights. More considered analysis would suggest that this can’t last.

Having not seen a single kick of this season, I’m probably not in a position of great authority to judge, but objectively it would appear that there is a serious problem in defence. Especially given that the only points we’ve got have come from the 6-3 bizzare-athon against Eastbourne.

The bellowing form of Billy Turley, who I still suspect is not that far from tipping over the metaphorical hill, is perhaps more influential in marshalling the defence than it would sometimes appear. He always seems to me to be an irritant – but that’s probably because I would want to punch someone at work who yelled at me constantly for 90 minutes.

Patterson’s observation about Luke Foster appears well made too. Jim Smith was hardly backwards in his criticism of Foster this time last year. He appears to summer badly and perhaps it’s his attitude rather than ability, that needs keeping in check.

Fear not, I join the relegation battle on Monday against Woking which is surely set to be a humdinger, if past encounters are to be considered.