Midweek fixture: FA Cup 1st Round memories

On Sunday we head off on another FA Cup adventure with the trip to Hayes and Yeading. Previous 1st Round ties have conjured up a range of emotions from record highs to record lows. Here are seven of the best, and worst, from the last 24 years.

2016 – Merstham 5-0

Six months after promotion, we were the epitome of a team in a good place. A draw away to unknown commuter town Merstham was a great opportunity to try out our new status. TV cameras were there baying for an upset, but even with key players rested, we strolled to a classy win.

2013 – Gateshead 1-0

By 2013, our post-promotion glow had worn off and further progress up the divisions seemed just out of reach. The malaise tested the loyalty of the biggest fans. Following a desperate 2-2 draw with Gateshead at the Kassam, we travelled very very north for the replay. A postponement minutes before kick-off left fans stranded hundreds of miles from home. Still, two weeks later a Dean Smalley penalty sealed a workaday win.

2009 – Yeovil Town 1-0

An often forgotten and somewhat insignificant game in the context of the rest of that season, but important for other reasons. We were on a roll in the League, regaining confidence lost over a 10 year period. We were raucous off the pitch and aggressive on it. It was only the 1st Round, and it was only Yeovil, but it was also our first win over any league team for four years. We were on the way back.

2006 – Wycombe Wanderers 1-2

The significance of this game was the fact it happened at all. Relegated from the Football League we’d started the season well. For the first time in a generation we were required to qualify to the FA Cup. We did, with a win over Dagenham and Redbridge, drawing Wycombe Wanderers in the first round. A solid display and narrow defeat wasn’t as satisfying as the knowledge we registered our existence in the competition for another year. 

2005 – Eastbourne Borough 3-0

Labouring to a 1-0 lead at little Eastbourne Borough in the FA Cup, they introduced, to the obvious excitement of the locals, a whippet quick van driver from Nigeria. Yemi Odubade ran our lumbering centre-backs ragged, winning them a last minute penalty and earning a replay. In the replay, Odubade ran amok, but somehow a Steve Basham hat-trick saw us triumph. The result was a travesty. Days later Brian Talbot brought Yemi to the club, where he became a rare bright spot in a bleak time.

1995 – Dorchester Town 9-1

God we needed this; having failed to gain promotion the previous season, the 95/96 campaign was faltering. When Dorchester Town arrived in November some were doubting our credentials. The avalanche of goals was cathartic, keeping the baying hordes at bay, a major stepping stone towards finding our feet and heading for promotion.

1994 – Marlow Town 0-2

Perhaps the grimmest day in the club’s history. We were top of League 1 and looked to be heading for promotion. We drew the architects and IT consultants of Marlow Town, which featured Les Phillips and Peter Rhodes-Brown in their number. On a potato patch pitch we put on the most fancy-dan performance and were out battled. It popped any bubble of positivity. 

Midweek fixture: The Kassam’s biggest crowds

We all know that the Kassam Stadium is the ground we love to call home, a place where dreams happen. Mostly, those dreams involve wistfully staring over to the Vue cinema wishing you were watching the latest blockbuster, not another defeat at the hands of Bristol Rovers. But, sometimes we (nearly) fill the place. And when we (nearly) fill the place, we always lose. Or do we? Here are the Kassam’s top ten biggest crowds (excluding Elton John gigs).

12,243, Oxford United 2 Leyton Orient 3, 6 May 2006

During the World Cup of Kassam Stadium Games in 2018, this game did surprisingly badly. OK, the result wasn’t the best, a 2-3 defeat that relegated us from the Football League, but it was febrile, visceral and ugly, an absolutely brutal afternoon not helped by the fact I arrived late having not slept all night due to the birth of my eldest daughter that morning. It was quite a day which, strangely, I loved.

12,177 – Oxford United 0 Aston Villa 3, League Cup, 6 November 2006

Technically the Kassam has a capacity of 12,500, but it doesn’t account for segregation. Drawing Premier League Aston Villa in the League Cup was an early tester for handling larger crowds. It turned out we couldn’t, largely putting paid to future crowds of over 12,000. It was pretty grim, fans ended up breaking through the doors under the North Stand. On the pitch it wasn’t much better as Andy Woodman had a stinker for the first two goals before Homes Under the Hammer’s Dion Dublin hammered home in the closing minutes.

11,963 – Oxford United 2 Rushden & Diamonds 0, 2010

Oxford United always fail, just when you think they’ll succeed, they screw it up. Right? Wrong. Having cruised into the Conference Play-Off Semi-Final and drawn away at Rushden and Diamonds, we just needed to put them to the sword in front of a massive and expectant crowd. Without a fuss, and with Jefferson Louis lumbering upfront for the hapless Diamonds, we cruised to Wembley. Just one of those days when everything went right.  

11,825 – Oxford United 2 Swindon Town 0, 3 March 2012

No derby has been more anticipated; it had been 10 years since we’d last played them at home. A win, following an away win earlier in the year, would see us achieve our first ever double. Then it all fell apart; Swindon were on a surging unbeaten run, we had a wave of injuries sweep through the side. It couldn’t get any worse, but it did, 20 minutes into the game talismanic star striker James Constable is sent off. And then, like the Ultimate Warrior recovering from an apparent knock out, a cross swept into the six yard box; Asa Hall bundles in the first, minutes later Ollie Johnson does it again. A heroic rearguard, including ballboys fighting with Swindon players, saw us take a famous win.

11,815 – Oxford United 3 Wycombe Wanderers 0, 7 May 2016

The best game we’ve ever had at The Kassam, according to the World Cup of Kassam Stadium Games. A beautiful sunny day in which we swept to promotion on a tidal wave, following a year in which we fell in love with the club again. A slightly nervy but ultimately comfortable first half ended 0-0, then Chris Maguire swung in a corner, Chey Dunkley crashed through a crowd of players, connecting with the ball and slamming it into the back of the net. Maguire made things safe with a penalty with 20 minutes to go. In injury time Callum O’Dowda danced his way through the Wycombe defence, which was already on its second sangria in Torremolinos, to slot home the third. Bliss.

11,810 – Oxford United 3 Newcastle United 0, 28 January 2017

In some ways, this had ‘meh’ written all over it (see Blackburn). Newcastle were a decent home draw in the FA Cup, but were focussing on promotion back to the Premier League. An FA Cup tie was always likely to be a low priority. What’s more, with their resources, even a weakened side had the potential to sweep us away without a second thought. If we were going to make it a memorable game, then we had to do something special. So we did.

11,790 – Oxford United 0 Northampton 1, 26 December 2016

OK, so it’s Boxing Day and it’s Northampton and they always bring a decent following, but even so a league game and somehow, like Kelis’ milkshake, it brings all the boys to the yard. At which point we characteristically end up in a turgid affair before being caught napping in injury time. Merry Christmas everyone.

11,673 – Oxford United 3 Swansea City 2

Michael Appleton’s greatest game? A true awakening of our dormant club? Yes and yes. It was difficult to know what to expect from the visit of Swansea, who were fighting relegation rather than focussing on Wembley. A moment of Premier League class saw them take the lead, after which we hand over to one of Oxford’s greatest ever sides; Liam Sercombe equalised from the spot, Kemar Roofe scored two beauties. The second breakaway goal is not only a wonderful team goal, the eruption in the East Stand as the ball looped in tells you everything about the club at the time. A Premier League performance by a League 2 team.

11,655 Oxford United 1 Swindon Town 0, 2003

As we know, absence makes the heart grow more spiteful. When we were drawn against Swindon Town in the FA Cup in 2003, it was the first meeting at the Kassam. It was an ugly time; the Kassam still wasn’t home, Ian Atkins was not in the game to entertain. The result was an ugly game, but a beautiful win. In the XX, the most glancing of headers from Jefferson Louis found the only route to goal available narrowly missing Steve Basham on the line. The reward was an away draw against Arsenal, Louis filmed celebrating naked in the dressing room live on TV.

11,647 Oxford United 0 Blackburn 3, 30 January 2016

A real after the Lord Mayor’s Show FA Cup tie. Weeks after the glory of the win over Swansea, and in the middle of a period which saw us get to Wembley, Blackburn, though struggling in the Championship, was a game too far.

The wrap: Oxford United 2 Wycombe Wanderers 1

Saturday’s game was preceded by the news that the club’s stuttering administration had failed to pay its non-playing staff on time. The reasons given by Karl Robinson was, once again, the flow of cash coming from Thailand, presumably via Singapore, where the club is registered.

Incidentally, if you’re questioning why players get priority, my understanding is that because they are unionised via the PFA, there is a standard invalidation clause in player contracts for non-payment of salary. The club has to protect their assets.

This is a reason, but no excuse, many companies push money around the world to pay people, so why are we so different?

League 1 is a wasteland between smaller, well run teams in League 2 and the Conference, and the escalating scrap in the Championship to get to the Premier League. We have to spend more than we’re able to generate organically through ticket sales and merchandise just to maintain our status.

So, we’re reliant on our owners and the loan system. We’re often critical of loanees because the lack of control we have and the perception they might lack commitment.

In reality, a loans give us access to players we can’t otherwise afford. The division is awash with players from the Premier League academy system. But, academy football is all about creating rounded, technically capable professionals more than players brave enough to scrap for points. Ability takes you so far in a first team game, but winning games takes something else.

It’s a big factor in the division this season; lots of capable teams; few who can win matches on a regular basis. Our last three wins have all been punctuated by inspired moments that have broken the deadlock. Josh Ruffels’ crossfield ball against Bradford, Rob Dickie’s pass that led to Jerome Sinclair’s opener yesterday, Jordan Graham’s switch to Ruffels in the last minute, and, of course, Ruffels’ spectacular finish to win it. Earlier in the season, we didn’t have that, now we do and it’s making all the difference.

Wycombe’s ambition is largely to stay in League 1, Gareth Ainsworth has engineered them accordingly. They’re physical and difficult to play against, Ade Akinfenwa is the antithesis of a technical academy player. I can’t quite work out what the strategy is with him, standing still seems to be a big part of it, but he’s very effective with the limitations he has. It looked like we might get overawed by their gritty desire for points, and their noisy following, until Ruffels – who admitted he needs to learn to step up – took control of the situation.

We are starting to see players emerge from the constraints of their academy hothouses and turn into players that can win games. Luke Garbutt has had an unremarkable year, but he showed much more bravery going forward, Rob Dickie often looks like he has the weight of the world on his shoulders, but he’s growing with every game, Jerome Sinclair is a very solid player, but you can see he needs more time to turn into the selfish goalscorer he needs to be. Jordan Graham is sometimes criticised for over-playing, but he’s one of the few capable of doing something different.

Coming into form now should be enough to see us safe, which has largely been the objective since the opening weeks of the season which wrecked our prospects. In the context of a division that struggles to win games consistently and a club that has done its best to disrupt any modicum of stability, Karl Robinson has to take credit for the relatively comfortable position we now find ourselves in. He’s been manager, coach and club spokesman on a range of topics that are out of his control, if you blame him for failure you should have the good grace to praise him for success.

Games of Note: Wycombe Wanderers

It’s not a derby, but Wycombe v Oxford is frequently entertaining, and often momentus.

7 May 2016 – 3-0

45 games gone, 1 to go, three points for promotion.

8 April 1996 – 3-0

It’s Easter Saturday and we’re on the mother of all promotion charges. We’d never beaten Wycombe in the league before, but that’s all about to change. Stuart Massey on the crossbar, Paul Moody doing a handstand, iconic.

18 January 2014 – 1-0

In many ways, just another fixture, until Nicky Wroe unleashes the most perfect strike you’ve ever seen.

4 April 2015 – 3-2

A pretty grim season, but then West Brom loanee, Kemar Roofe takes the stage.

27 October 2012 – 3-1

If Tom Craddock’s goal, seconds into the second half tells you one thing, it’s that you should always sacrifice you half-time Mars bar in favour of watching the game.



Midweek fixture: Eight moments that remind us why we support Oxford United

Most of the time supporting Oxford United is a miserable experience. Then, every now and then, there’s a moment which reminds you why you do it. Here are eight moments which make it all worthwhile.

2009 Jamie Cook versus Luton

The aim for the season is promotion back to the Football League. The division’s other fallen giant, Luton Town, are in town. Over 10,000 turn up for this clash of the titans, we take the lead, then Jamie Cook sells the stadium a dummy and goes for goal.

2012 Peter Leven versus Port Vale

A so-so game against a so-so team in a so-so season. Mercurial playmaker Peter Leven breaks down a Port Vale attack in his own half, nudges the ball forward, then looks up. He hasn’t, has he? Yes, I think he has.

2013 Alfie Potter versus Portsmouth

Relegated but rejuvenated, Portsmouth sell out the opening game of the season; billed as a celebration of their club’s re-awakening. We’re the stooges for the occasion, there to be sacrificed for the entertainment of the locals. The script says they take the lead which they do, then Alfie Potter tears the script up and throws it in a bin fire.

2014 Nicky Rowe versus Wycombe Wanderers

Despite dominating our game against Wycombe at Adams Park, we can’t make the breakthrough. Then, with two minutes to go, Nicky Rowe picks the ball up just outside the box and lets fly with the sweetest strike you’ll ever see.

2016 Liam Sercombe versus Carlisle

Despite a season of highlights, with three games to go we need three wins to secure promotion. Hundreds make the journey north for the last game of the season against Carlisle. We take the lead early, but the signature moment of the game, of the season, of the decade, is Liam Sercombe’s marauding second. Absolute limbs.

2017 Toni Martinez versus Middlesborough

Limbs (part 2). An enjoyable run in the FA Cup is all set to end as Middlesborough take a two goal lead. It’s all over. Or is it?

2018 Ryan Ledson versus Charlton

Nothing seems to be going right; we’ve lost our manager and seem unable to get a new one. We head to Charlton, managed by Karl Robinson, who are threatening the play-offs and lose our only recognised striker to injury. With two minutes to go, we’re 1-2 down. Seconds later, we’re all square and heading for a decent, and important point. That’s never enough for Ryan Ledson.

2019 Jamie Mackie versus Bradford

We’re in the 94th minute of a relegation six pointer and Bradford are just about to score the winner to tear our hearts out and potentially send us down. They miss, we take the goal-kick, and seven seconds later, the ball drops for Jamie Mackie for a goal for the ages. Then things get really weird.

Midweek fixtures: A tribute to the Oxford United Ultras

It’s not unusual to forget something when you move house; the bread maker in the loft or the cat. When Oxford United moved from The Manor to The Kassam, we forgot to pack our soul.

Rewind.

Rageonline tells me it was January 2006 about 2.40pm, we were playing Darlington. I was sitting in my car facing the East Stand. It was cold so I took a punt at parking in the car park, when I got there, I had my pick of the spaces. Nobody had bothered to turn up. We lost 2-0.

Two weeks later we were playing Rochdale. The mood was sombre, the atmosphere was dead. We didn’t know it, but the Kassam-era was coming to an end. In a few weeks fans would be storming the stadium in protest; days after Nick Merry and Jim Smith would stride out as the public face of our new owners.

Amidst all the bleakness, spontaneously, the East Stand struck up a heavy rhythm – clapping, chanting and banging seats – it was loud and unrelenting, completely at odds with the meandering on the pitch.

For the rest of the season, although we were tanking on the pitch, the fans started reclaiming their club. At the Manor, we inherited it from our forebears; it’s stories, the giant killings, promotions, the players; all soaked into the walls of the old place. We left it all behind; we became consumers, even though what we were consuming tasted increasingly sour. The fans had to reimagine its relationship with the club.

This wasn’t the start of the Oxford United Ultras, who announced recently they were folding after ten years, but the idea of fan participation was starting to stir. Despite relegation to the Conference, the embers of that idea remained. A giant flag was purchased and unfurled in time for every crushing defeat and false dawn. It was a gallant attempt at creating atmosphere, but the problem was that the noise from the East Stand was muffled and nobody could clap when holding it up.

In 2007, Aldershot Town visited the Kassam. It was early in the season and they were flying. Their fans had hold of their destiny – they turned up in huge numbers, festooned with flags and balloons; a wall of red and blue, willing them to succeed. It was a carnival of the like I’d never seen before. In stark contrast, Arthur Gnohere handled comically in the box conceding a penalty. They won 3-2, then went on to win promotion back to the Football League.

It was a low, but things were looking up. Chris Wilder took over in 2008 and went on a run that nearly got us into the play-offs. We were docked five points for playing an ineligible player, exactly the number of points we fell short by. The injustice of it all ignited something.

The summer was a blur – Wilder brought together a squad full of flair and aggression. Constable, Green, Midson, Clarke, Creighton; names that would become legends.

Off the field things were moving; fan groups, partly fuelled by social media, were emerging, planning and plotting. First pre-arranged areas for home games, then flags, then more. Many of the groups died, or merged, it takes energy to turn pub dreams into reality. There’s an irony about ultra movements; they seem unruly and anti-social, but in reality they have to be organised and structured, funding has to exist, people have to do things to do things.

I’m not keen on military analogies, but we became like an invading army. We had James Constable, Mark Creighton and Adam Murray controlling things on the pitch and a cacophony of flags and banners filling the away end, the air was filled with yellow and blue smoke bombs, our relative size in the Conference had been a burden, now it was becoming an asset.

I’ve said before that I know players rarely support the team they play for, but I want their time at Oxford to be the best of their career. Lower league football can be unforgiving and spartan, the joy of playing with the backing of the Ultras must have been immense.

We swept to promotion on a sea of optimism and a riot of colour. Back in the Football League, despite a couple of memorable wins over Swindon, but the fun started to dwindle. The flags were still waved; banners appeared at the back of the stand. There was something, but it was a battle to keep the energy going, particularly at home.  

In 2016, though, the movement peaked. The year kicked off with the now fabled Austrian tour, it is easy to forget that we drew 0-0 playing in the previous season’s kit with no sponsor. What is memorable is the crowd, the bewildered looks on the faces of the players at the fervent optimism. Without that, the tour would have been meaningless.  

The plan for the season was uncompromising; we weren’t just going for promotion, we were going for everything. In the JPT we were once again drawn against Swindon. Although they were in a division higher, the balance of power was shifting. The aim was not to beat them heroically as we had in 2011 and 2012, we were going to dominate them on and off the field.

Something special was promised by the Ultras, though the details were kept under-wraps, immediately before the game it wasn’t evident what was planned. As the players emerged from the tunnel, from the top of the East Stand, a flag was unbundled and passed down to the front.

The ambition was staggering; it stretched from the top of the East Stand to the bottom, featuring a giant, angry ox with a robin impaled on one of its horns. I am rarely stopped in my tracks at football; years of following the same club and the same routine does that to you, but this was nothing short of breathtaking.

At the Swindon end, a banner was meekly held aloft, some streamers disappeared into the night sky; we’d won and hadn’t even kicked off.

The season was a blur; against Swansea another display in the East Stand, criminally ignored by live TV cameras, then for the final game against Wycombe, another.

In between, the back wall of the East Stand was festooned with banners featuring a myriad of opaque cultural references – Time for Heroes (acknowledged by The Libertines on Match of the Day), Always and forever, Remember 86, That Sweet City. Even for run-of-the-mill games, the ultras brought life to our soulless home by quoting Victorian poet Matthew Arnold.

Promotion brought another reward – yet another pair of derbies against Swindon Town. A critical aspect of any victory is the ability to surprise; following the giant flag, the Robins knew something was coming. Whatever was being planned, the Ultra’s response needed to be beyond good.

Again, a plan was hatched, preparation was needed. The night before, the Ultras gave every seat in the East Stand a flag. It must have taken hours. The morning of the game was miserable and drizzly, but there was a bigger problem; a great section of the flags had been removed. Swindon fans? Kids? The plan had been scuppered. Or had it?

This is where the Ultras’ work is underestimated; rather than just giving in, they were back in the stadium repositioning the flags, removing the broken ones, making sure everything was right.

And just before 3pm, the effect was heart stopping, a sea of colour another crushing blow before a ball was kicked.

There were so many other displays – against Manchester City, for our 125th birthday, but in the background, politics was playing its part. All displays are going to test health and safety rules, if they don’t, then they’re probably not worth doing. The club started moving the goalposts, the Ultras felt like they were being taken for granted.

Perhaps they just ran out of energy and money, but it seems like The Ultras, the visual spirit of the club, became a pawn in ongoing arguments between the club and the stadium company. Like a divorcing couple using their kids to emotionally blackmail each other. Just after their 10th birthday, it was announced the Ultras would be retiring their flags at the end of the season, but another altercation with the stadium company finally killed their spirit and they closed.

If the Oxford United Ultras’ only contribution was to bring personality back to the club after it had been stripped bare by its owners, that would have been achievement enough. But they grew so much beyond that, they created defining moments in the modern history of the club.

And then some; we live in a world of corporate football, where atmospheres are paid for and organised by billionaire owners. People applaud fan movements, and visual spectacles, if there was a better, more authentic, more spectacular, more ambitious fan group in the country than the Oxford United Ultras, I’ve yet to see them.

The wrap – Wycombe Wanderers 0 Oxford United 0

Any talk about derbies is like a school playground argument about who is your best and second best friend; unresolvable, circular, divisive and ultimately pointless. So, inevitably, as another Wycombe/Oxford fixture swings by, the discussion begins again and remains unresolved. Again.

Most Oxford fans dismiss the idea for obvious reasons; we have established rivalries – Swindon, obviously, and Reading (who we haven’t played against for 14 years). Admitting any sense of rivalry with Wycombe would, in the eyes of some fans, bring us down to Wycombe’s level. And in their eyes that’s non-league despite Wanderers having been a Football League club for a quarter of a century. Every time a fixture does come by, of course, it doesn’t stop a scramble for tickets.

Perhaps with a derby, as well as proximity, you’ve got to have forgotten why you don’t like a team in the first place in order it to turn into something deeper. In truth, I really like Wycombe; I like the fact that I’ve only ever missed one meeting home or away. I like Adams Park, its setting in the foothills of the Chilterns is fantastic and as a stadium it reminds me of The Manor – a bit disjointed, but at the same time complete – a home rather than a stadium. We invariably sell out our allocation which means the atmosphere is always good. The two teams have been evenly matched over the years, so more often than not, it’s a good game.

My daughter came to the game on Saturday, she’s been to a few sparsely populated enormo-domes which have been comfortable and fun to watch, but she’s never experienced the febrile intensity of a packed away end. I would have told her that this was what the London Road was like, but she has no concept of us playing anywhere other than The Kassam. Needless to say she loved it, even if she did hear a few too many shouts of ‘cunt’ than I’d have liked. I’d also like to think she’s aware that the ‘wanker’ sign is not an innocent gesture of Corinthian rivalries.

Saturday’s edition was a fine complement to the series – it galloped along at a fair pace, punctuated by incidents and talking points – injuries, fights and apoplexy. Leaving at the end there was the sense of deep muscle exhaustion which comes with being drawn into something. It might not have felt like a derby, but at times it felt like a derby. My daughter complained that her feet hurt, which is exactly how it should be.

Complaints of our demise or how we should be beating ‘teams like Wycombe’ are overstated. More often than not this season we have played well, but we lack an additional dimension. For all Ade Akinfenwa’s absurdities, and he has many, he does one thing well. Which is standing still. But, like Peter Crouch, Kevin Francis or even Yemi Odubade, you accept his failures because if all else fails, you know the one dimension they have might break the deadlock.

We don’t have that – a goal poacher, a battering ram, someone with prodigious pace. The closest we have is, perhaps Marcus Browne, but he can only play for a few minutes at a time. It meant that even with numerous chances, it was difficult to remember a chance we genuinely looked like scoring from.

But that said, there’s an energy and effort that should still give us a good platform for the season. We just need to ease any tensions about relegation by scraping together a few points so that we can start looking up.

Whether it’s a derby or not is unresolvable, but I’ll always look forward to an Oxford Wycombe game, because above all else, it’s a very fine fixture.