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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
We’ve had promotions before, we’ve had derby wins, we’ve had trips to Wembley, we’ve had giant killings. We’ve never had all four in one season. And that should tell you all you need to know about this year.
Before the Wycombe game, someone on Twitter worked out the various permutations of the final day; we would be promoted in all but a handful of them. Success was not quite inevitable, but failure seemed inconceivable. It wasn’t arrogance, it’s just that it was impossible to think that after months in the automatic places, after everything we’ve been through, that it might actually end up in a big wet play-off shaped fart.
Like the White Walkers in Game of Thrones, there was still a theoretical, undefinable, inconceivable threat. Wycombe could frustrate us; motivated to spoil the party. We could freeze. This is, after all, Oxford United.
In response, the club did what the club does these days; it ignored the what-ifs, and defused the tension with a bar-b-que for the fans at the Oxford Academy. The philosophy was to behave like where you want to be, not where you’re at; not eaten by anxiety, but already, effectively, promoted.
The sun shone, and the fans came, and the club delivered another PR masterstroke in a season of masterstrokes.
At the Kassam, people buzzed around the stadium not quite knowing what to do. People sat in their cars reading newspapers having secured their usual spot hours earlier. Their routines disrupted by the size of the crowd and the prospects of what was in store. In the South Stand Upper there was near-silence as people fixated on the TV showing the Middlesbrough v Brighton game trying to avoid talking about what might happen after-3pm.
Earlier, I’d met Brinyhoof in the bar, he was talking with some people from the FOUL days and the old Oxford indie scene who now have management jobs, raise children and pay into pension schemes while running social media accounts for bands that were once wan, willowy and pretty and now portly, raising children and paying into pension schemes. “He used to play in Hurricane No. 1”, he tells me afterwards.
We go in early and do a quick tour of the South Stand, spotting faces from the old days. They work for the club nowadays, or volunteer, or run blogs and podcasts or just hang around social media sites living out the despair and occasional triumphs.
We have the ’86 generation and the ’96 generation. A generation that fund, arrange and make the displays that have transformed the soulless Kassam Stadium into the broiling hive it’s been this year.
At the heart of the revolution is Darryl Eales and Michael Appleton, of course, and the players. But at the heart of the club are the same people who have seen us through relegations and false dawns and disappointments and non-league football and near-liquidation. These people, so attuned to failure, were also confident and calm, more excited than worried.
Wycombe didn’t roll over though. An early goal may have broken their spirit, but it didn’t come and they went about their business disrupting our rhythm. With the sun beating down and nervous tension things threatened to overheat; it wasn’t pleasant.
And then the rain came, a biblical downpour that hammered down on the roof of the stadium making a cacophonous noise like I’ve never heard before. If this was a rock concert, it was the equivalent of getting a couple of acoustic guitars out and playing some ballads to give the crowd a rest.
Cooled by the rain, Wycombe’s initial burst of energy subsided and the elastic began to stretch, but we still needed something to make it snap. In 1996 it was Giuliano Grazioli’s misplaced header from a Joey Beauchamp corner. Twenty years on; Chris Maguire delivered another corner into the box and careering through a crowd of bodies thundered Chey Dunkley to make a connection. Snap. 1-0.
In many ways Dunkley is the archetype of the Appleton-era. I thought he’d been brought from non-league football as a cheap wage but over the last year he’s developed physically and technically. He is a player who wants to learn and work and the kind that will respond to Appleton’s developmental approach to coaching.
Maguire makes it two from the spot. More the finished article, he seems the type that would respond to Appleton’s desire for players to think for themselves rather than play to a rigid system. For all the talk of Roofe, Hylton, Sercombe and Lundstram, it’s Maguire and Dunkley more than anyone else who have carried us over the line.
There’s a sign in the back of the East Stand ‘A Time For Heroes’, a few weeks ago it looked like ours were injured or exhausted, but the void was filled by Dunkley and Maguire along with Josh Ruffels; a forgotten man who turned out performances whenever and wherever needed. A special-team to close out a special season.
The tension from the ground evaporated. Lundstram’s passing became more expansive, Roofe looked more mobile, at one point Jake Wright majestically picked up a ball from the edge of the box and waltzed out into midfield like Bobby Moore.
Then the coronations, MacDonald jogs off; a player who gave up a promotion push with Burton to join the revolution and never once let his enthusiasm drop. He was the first, the vanguard. When George Baldock went back to MK Dons and Jonjoe Kenny came in there was a worry that it might be enough to burst the bubble, but MacDonald mentored Kenny, protected and supported him and helped him develop into another asset. Did we miss Baldock? Yes. But nowhere near as much as was feared.
Hylton and Roofe are replaced to deserved standing ovations. Roofe almost transcends the club now, which is why I think Hylton won the fans’ player of the year. It’s the mix of ability and application, plus eccentricity and triumph over adversity that makes Danny Hylton and the club he plays for a little bit different.
And in the final seconds; a moment to file alongside THAT goal by Alfie Potter. O’Dowda, picks the ball up, rides a few half-hearted challenges and wrong foots the keeper to make it three. An Oxford boy confirming an Oxford triumph. There’s are shades of Joey Beauchamp’s last goal before he went to West Ham; cutting in from the right in front of the home end. That was Beauchamp’s farewell… And O’Dowda?
There are two things that have dawned on me about promotions. Firstly, I know that players rarely support their club, but I want their time with us to be the best of their career, and, the reason I want promotion is not really for me, but for them, to reward them for their effort throughout the season.
Were we the best team in the division? That’s an argument that will never end, the table tells you one thing, but look more broadly and it’s closer than you’d think. We scored more goals and conceded less than Northampton, if you factor in our cup games, we only won one game less. If you consider the physical and mental challenge of our season compared to theirs, then there’s a reasonable argument to say that we have been at least on par. Experimental 361 did some analysis that showed how effective we’d been and Chris Wilder himself once admitted that we were the best footballing team. Were we the best? Yeah, why not?
It’s difficult to overstate how close I was to giving up on Oxford last year. I was bored of the false dawns and wasted Saturdays. I was no longer bound by a blind youthful loyalty, maybe I could pick and choose my games like a casual fan. This season was a last chance saloon, I had visions of signing off this blog and actually walking away from the club, going to find something better to do with my limited spare time. And then this season happened, and it has reignited everything I love about the club; success and excitement, tension, camaraderie, but also effort and hard work and reward. Oxford United, how did I ever doubt you?
Nathan Cooper said it after the draw with Carlisle; going into the game against Wycombe having not lost in the League at Adams Park for a decade, was a concern. A decade unbeaten away from home is extraordinary, eventually there will be a point at which things start to become ordinary again.
There was the usual guff the game’s validity as a derby. Wycombe and Oxford are close to each other and there was a scramble for tickets – the first time I’ve missed out on a game I wanted to see since Leeds in 1994. The game was clearly keenly anticipated.
One person dismissed Wycombe as ‘irrelevant’; the football version of Marie-Anntoinette’s ‘Let them eat cake.’ It all started to sound a little bit like Swindon fans do when they play us, claiming unconvincingly, that Bristol City are their real rivals. There was talk of that they were ‘tinpot’, all of which ignores the fact that Wycombe have spent more time than us above League 2 over the last 20 years.
Recent victories over Wycombe have had a backdrop of angst about them – last year we were threatened with relegation and they were flying high, the year before it was the last knockings of Chris Wilder’s tenure. There was a feeling of intensity, this time there was a degree of complacency.
Football isn’t like Christmas it doesn’t deliver goodwill to all men. Perhaps inevitably, for the second time this week we were League two’ed by a team who were strong and direct and good at set pieces. It might not be the most aesthetically pleasing style, but it does work.
We’re approaching the middle point of the season, we’ve played everyone, some think that the Wycombe result was the beginning of one of those characteristic Oxford United slumps. It is still too early to tell, but we won’t help ourselves by changing the way we, as fans approach games.
When the season starts you don’t really know whether you’re facing a good team or a bad one. Later in the season it’s fairly clear what type of team you’re facing. One of the things about Wycombe is we apparently know what we’re facing – a tinpot, irrelevant club – and that’s where the trouble starts because there was and expectation of victory.
We head into Christmas in third, it’s a good position from my point of view, but we need to be aware that the job is not even half complete. If this does turn out to be the start of the slump we’ll be asking why we can’t play like we did at the start of the season, that’s a reasonable challenge, but we also need to support like we did at the start of the season.
Any other business – Eales leaves
The Christmas announcement nobody was expecting was that Mark Ashton was stepping down to allow Darryl Eales to become more hands on with the club. Coming after the defeat against Wycombe this created a murmur of uncertainty amongst fans.
It seems logical that this wasn’t a planned change given that it has happened mid-season with the club apparently on the up.
Ashton was on the radio a couple of hours after the announcement, which implies that either he has been paid off so handsomely he’s prepared to talk Eales and the club up, or he has genuinely been discussing this for a while. I suspect it’s the latter; why would Eales risk putting Ashton on the radio when it’s easier to put a statement on the club’s website and wait to the furore to blow over?
What is Ashton’s legacy? It’s difficult to tell at the moment, as good as our recent form has been, we were awful last year. It might be reasonably argued that he was prepared to act as a spokesperson for the club even when things were a mess and that any work he did put in place in the background is bearing fruit this season. I suspect it’s one of those things where we won’t know his true value until he’s gone; we probably won’t really know for a few months.
What’s impact will the change have on the club? It seems that the main role of a chief executive is to temper the worst excesses of your owner. Kelvin Thomas’ enthusiasm and positive nature counter-balanced Ian Lenagan’s natural conservatism. When Thomas left, the club was fully exposed to Lenagan’s cautiousness (which, it should be noted made him a very rich man and turned the club on its head, so it was not at all bad).
Eales, by everyone’s assertion, is a infectiously positive person. That has to be good for the club in the short term. He is clearly a successful man, but is it because he’s a good businessman or because he’s a gambler who has won big just enough times to make him rich? A gambler in a football club is not necessarily a good thing in the long term because it doesn’t take much to plunge a club into crisis.
There is another scenario worth considering; with Eales’ positivity, Lenagan’s natural conservatism and Firoz Kassam, effectively a still key shareholder in the club, it could be that Ashton’s presence muddies the water. If Eales can align the ambitions of all three men, then it could actually be the making of the club.
I couldn’t get a ticket for Wycombe; I can’t remember the last time I failed to get a ticket for a game I wanted to go for. It’s only the second Wycombe game I’ve ever missed home or away. I guess that’s what success does for you.
Wycombe have fallen away a little after last year’s heroics and a decent start. Had they maintained their form, this could have been the fixture to tip it into the category of ‘derby’. Familiarity has bred an increasing degree of contempt between the two clubs, but it still needs something to light that spark. It may be this game, but if not, then the final game of the season at the Kassam has potential to ignite the fuse.
Old game of the day
It’s not a derby, but existing animosity makes a pretty good starting point when developing a rivalry. We’ve had plenty of good times at Adams Park. None better than this from 1996.
Three months is not a long time to have had to negotiate two ‘must win’ games, but that’s what Michael Appleton has had to do since the start of the season. The game against Accrington, which we went into without a league win, and the game against Tranmere where we potentially faced defeat at home to the bottom club. These represented potentially pivotal moments in our season and perhaps Appleton’s Oxford career. He negotiated both, but the fact we’re even talking in these terms is a source of lingering concern.
Wycombe wasn’t a must win game, but it was a key barometer as to where we are and how we’re getting on. Whether the game represents a derby or not is still subject to some debate but the animosity between the two clubs does seem to crank up as the years pass. It’s not so much a rival sibling, more like a cousin from ‘that’ side of the family. One that you find yourself having to invite to parties even though you think, depending on which side you sit, they are stuck up and living above their station or from the wrong side of the family who brings down house prices when they park in your drive. Whatever the game is, it is a ‘something’, and that in itself gave it importance.
But, more than that, Wycombe last season avoided relegation from the Football League by the skin of their teeth. When we played them at Adams Park they looked hopeless. Despite the late goal and narrow scoreline we completely outplayed them. Now, they’re at the top of the table and yet, there’s been no obvious investment in playing staff and Gareth Ainsworth – who looked out of this depth and lost – is still on the touchline. How have they gone from one end of the table to the other ? And how have we done the opposite?
Here’s my take based on Saturday. Let’s employ a deliberately over-simplified measure of quality; for example, the average number of effective touches that a League 2 team might make in a game. Let’s give that a figure of, say, 1000 touches. Since we came back into the league in 2010, there have been teams able to spend money on players beyond that base level – Chesterfield, Swindon, Fleetwood and Crawley all spring to mind – perhaps they were able to deliver, on average, say, 1200 touches per game. As a result, whilst it is still possible to beat them in any one-off game, over a season they dominate the division leaving all the others to pick the scraps out of whatever was left over.
Last season was slightly different, although Chesterfield eventually eased home, most of the rest of the division were ‘1000 touch’ teams. With everyone pretty much of a muchness, those who used those touches most efficiently succeeded. This was illustrated by our own form and style which was as average as at any point since we returned, but we found ourselves at the top of the table. Our away form, in particular, was spectacular; because when we got the ball we used it well.
This season is much the same; the teams that came down – Tranmere, Hartlepool and Carlisle appear to be in a terminal decline, those who have come up from the Conference are doing OK, but not because they’ve got a sugar daddy sitting in the background. In short, we have much the same kind of profile of division that we had last year – a whole world of average.
So, what’s changed with Wycombe? Perhaps its necessity or desperation, or perhaps Ainsworth is learning his trade, but Wycombe have evolved into a tough and direct unit, in other words, it’s not that they have more touches in the team, it’s that they’re using their 1000 touches well.
They illustrated their robustness early on Saturday with the foul on Andy Whing and subsequent elbow to his head, which was probably deserving of two yellow cards. I don’t fully understand the rules around red cards for penalties or agree with their automatic double-jeopardy nature, but the first penalty could have been another red.
Early on we knocked the ball around; along the back, down the flanks, back along the back, and along the back again. We had one free-kick that everyone went up for and we played it short, and then backwards. We used up our 1000 touches knocking the ball around ineffectually. If you are going to use up your touches so quickly, you’ve got to hope that you’ve got a few goals out of it. We had just one.
As much as we matched Wycombe for most of the first half, the second half we were all but spent, all our touches were used up. They were still chugging away with plenty in the locker. The goals, when they came, were the result of robust, direct football at a time when we were done for. The chance of coming back were limited because we didn’t have the spare quality. We wasted so much energy playing it around nicely and getting nowhere, when we needed more, we didn’t have it.
The difference between the teams, therefore, is purely tactical. Ainsworth and Appleton both stood on the touchline dressed like young fathers ready to go for a curry with their wives in Chelsea boots and skinny jeans. They’re very similar people with just a few years between them. But Ainsworth appears to have learned that, as a manager, you’ve got to work with what you have to get results.
The answer to this problem is either to invest heavily in ‘1200 touch’ players or go through the coaching process to get them up to that level. I don’t think Appleton has the luxury of either option, so it’s all about working with what he’s got. He can argue that he hasn’t had time to implement players with the ‘right DNA’, but he’s got Clarke, Mullins, Wright, Whing, Barnett and Hylton at his disposal he should be doing better than he is.
One telling shift came in Appleton’s post-match interview. Whilst I’ve been critical of him and the new regime, he has always spoken well and eloquently in interviews. On Saturday he struggled with a coherent analysis of the game; from hearing it you might have thought we’d controlled it and won. His conclusion about the penalty? That’s what happens when you’re at the bottom and they’re at the top.
Not true. He’s got the cause and effect the wrong way round. You don’t miss chances because you’re at the bottom; you’re at the bottom because you miss chances, or because you spend all your touches fannying around along the backline rather than creating goalscoring opportunities. Now that Appleton appears to be reverting to claptrap of being ‘lucky’ and ‘unlucky’, perhaps he’s running out of ideas.
I didn’t want to jinx anything, so I tried to keep the fact that our game against Wycombe was my first away game of the season. I needn’t have worried, we were brilliantly assured, as we’ve been all season. Better than being at home, that’s for sure.
When I post a blog onto this site, I normally send out three tweets for publicity, one a day. I don’t want to spam anyone, but I know that people face a cascade of tweets every day, and so it seems reasonable to give people three chances to spot that a post is there for them to read.
Last week, we played Portsmouth, so I wrote something about, well, Portsmouth. I tweeted it once and returned to the post a couple of hours later to find seven comments and over 700 visitors. That’s quite a lot for this blog. They were, of course, Portsmouth fans telling me what an idiot I was for deigning to take a view of their club. I didn’t think what I’d written was particularly incendiary; I basically questioned how long their team, which is really demonstrably poor, will sustain such a large following.
After that I didn’t bother with anymore promotion; I don’t need readers that much, and definitely not of that kind. It’s not why I write this stuff. I’m not sure why I write this stuff, but it’s not to be abused. I was left to question what’s the point was of doing something that just draws a load of abuse, and what kind of mess of a game is it that people feel it necessary to be so?
Anyway, fast forward a week and I found myself in the ‘Main Stand’ at Adams Park. You know that little section of away seating that exists in virtually every ground, the one you look at and wonder why anyone would choose to sit there? That’s where I was, down the side of the pitch; it wasn’t intentional, I bought online and I thought I was buying for the proper away stand – the Dreams Stand, or whatever it’s called. That’s where I’ve always been before.
It was a terrible angle to watch a game; pitch level, just up from the corner flag, but it gave me full sight of the massed ranks of our away following. Usually when you’re part of an away following, you don’t get the chance to see what you look like. At Arsenal years ago, I was on the front row with 5,000 Oxford fans behind me; I might has well have been on my own.
It was also my first sight of us away from home, and it was brilliant. Completely the opposite to the ‘tired of life’ atmosphere currently generated at the Kassam.
I got thinking, though, after Portsmouth fans at the Kassam and Oxford fans at Adams Park, after months of playing at home with glum defeatism; is away the new home?
Our form plays a significant part in answering that question, obviously. Although we left it late, we were superb all afternoon; we were in control before the sending off and kept the ball moving – with patience – afterwards. The goal was absolutely brilliant. And, for all those Wycombe fans who tried mocking us for taking so long to make the breakthrough. We didn’t play 10 men, we played 11 men, as always – it’s just one of them was stupid enough to get himself sent off. You were well and truly beaten.
But, it’s deeper than that. I don’t have a theology degree, and I don’t really need a theology degree to tell someone that football has many of the attributes of a religion, but it took someone with a theology degree to confirm that this view exists within the academic community.
Back in the 50s football clubs were physically at the heart of their communities. Stadiums towered over terraced housing. The stadium, of course, is the church. And in the past, those ‘churches’ were unique to your club. That’s because stadia in past were build in stages as clubs grew; each stand would be created using whatever the latest technique or style was. They were also built on the club’s success using the fans’ money. They were owned, physically and spiritually by the community and paid for by its graft.
Now Stadiums, are less likely to be owned by the club and therefore the fans. Either literally, in our case, or stylistically in the case of any club that has moved into a generic enormodome in the last 15 years. It’s like trying to build a connection with your local Tesco.
Stadiums increasingly are located next to a Tesco or Asda, or at least away from where supporters live. You have to drive, not walk, to your own home. It is no longer an extension of your local community.
Cars are important in other ways. The first game I explicitly remember going to as a de facto away fan was the 1981 FA Cup game against Coventry. It was an epic journey through market towns of South Midlands. Visiting my grandparents in Abingdon from Hertfordshire was a journey of the scale and complexity of at least two volumes of Lord of the Rings. It required us to stop for fish and chips on the way. Now, although it doesn’t always feel like it, our transport networks have improved. Oxford to Coventry can be done in no time at all. And, thanks to the Japanese, not only are the roads better, but cars are more comfortable and reliable.
Even though getting to away games is easier than ever before, simply going to a game is a victory. It’s that sense of being part of a movement. We’re so dissipated at home, we don’t walk to games together anymore, it’s car, game, car, there’s no congregation at home, but that’s all different away. We’re galvanised by simple things like we don’t quite know what we’re doing and by the fact that we’re viewed with such suspicion. As I walked into the ground on Saturday, I overheard some police looking down the road talking over the radio; they’d tracked a group of blokes all the way from the White Horse, a pretty rum pub about 20 minutes away.
And from that point, everything feels better. An away win can’t be matched at home, an away draw feels like a home win – a sense of satisfaction. A defeat is easier to take away.
Perhaps, home simply is no longer our home. We are a displaced army, our home is barely our home. We’re forced onto the road and that, it seems, where our club thrives both on the pitch and off it.