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. 

Exeter and Yeovil wraps

Oxford United 3 Exeter City 0

Exeter was the tale of two halves, the first half was all about Chey Dunkley. I think the referee called it about right, the two challenges in question amounted to more than a yellow card, but they were less than a full red. I’m not a fan of players being sent off for ‘technical’ fouls rather than malicious challenges or things that deny clear advantages. To lose a player for more than a half would have been a disproportionate punishment for the challenges. There will be those who will argue that the letter rather than the spirit of the law should be followed, which is fair enough. It’s an argument that will never be resolved as it’s usually dependent on whether you’re the beneficiary or the victim of the situation.

Dunkley has been one of our outstanding players in recent weeks, but he is a player that is susceptible to pressure; some of his early performances were shaky to say the least but once he was in the groove, he looked a real asset and a threat to the Wright/Mullins partnership. On Saturday the wind, coupled with the pace of the Exeter attack put him in all sorts of trouble. Although I don’t think he deserved to be sent off, he was just a minor infringement from a red card; it was the right thing to do to replace him at half time.

It wasn’t Dunkley’s replacement that changed the game in the second half. We had been, just about, the better team throughout, although the overall performance was similar to most of this season, lots of possession, not enough penetration. But, it began to feel like when I compare my bike speed against others on Strava. While they may only be a few seconds faster than me over a mile, over 20 miles, they’re out of sight. Straight after half-time it looked like the elastic snapped; we were faster to everything. The goal came at the right time, I suspect another 10 minutes and it would have been a familiar scene, with us looking to snatch a single goal as Exeter regressed to defend a point.

But the goal stretched the play and everything fell into place. I was in the North Stand with a friend who occasionally joins me for the Boxing Day game. As I always do, I took him through each player he was likely to see. This is typically a summary based on 20 games of performances and, in reality, very few of the players I describe show anything like what they can. But for the first time everyone played to their potential; Roofe’s trickery, Lundstram’s passing, Sercombe’s surging, Baldock’s endless overlapping. The results were obvious.

Yeovil Town 0 Oxford United 0

Yeovil always felt like the forgotten game. When Christmas falls late in the week, it seems slightly odd to try shoehorn another fixture into the schedule. As much as I like the ‘busy Christmas period’, it would have been perfectly fine to play the game on Tuesday evening or even not at all. Two games in 48 hours, 110 miles apart seems slightly unnecessary. 
But, this isn’t going away any time soon and we may be suffering a degree of fixture overload. That risks mental rather than physical fatigue. When you’re always going for the win that requires a higher level of concentration and application and the pressure of games where the margin of error is smaller can have an effect. When you’re mid-table an away point is a good one; where you’re trying to average two points a game to get promotion a point isn’t enough and the pressure keeps building.
If we are feeling a bit of a slump, it’s not a bad one at all; 4 points in 2 games is hardly reason for panic. However, as well as just getting our heads down and getting through this period, some fresh faces may be helpful.

Coming up – Yeovil

The drop

“There are no bad teams in League 2”
“Apart from Yeovil”
“Oh yeah, apart from Yeovil, they’re awful”
So went the conversation between Nick Harris and Jerome Sale a couple of weeks ago. If it’s true that Yeovil are the worst team in the division, and our JPT tie gave us reason to believe they are, then we might benefit from the mental break that comes with constantly playing pressure games.
On the other hand, this is League 2 and being awful one week is no indicator of being awful the next. We learnt that last year with Hartlepool who looked dead and buried at this point but rose from the ashes to survive beating us in the process. Yeovil are a good club, I wouldn’t put it past them to get out of the mess they seem to find themselves in. We should beware.

Old game of the day

Not much to choose from for games against Yeovil, so let’s go all the way back to, um, earlier this season. It was retro day at the Kassam, so it was all nostalgia off the pitch and on it, we were reminded of past glories.

Forest Green and Yeovil Town wraps

Oxford United 1 Forest Green Rovers 0 

Forest Green was much more routine than it perhaps looked. They looked physically bigger than us all over the pitch, which may actually have been due to their vile luminous green shirts. Perhaps they were just conforming to the cliche of the part-time pub player, but I guess it’s more that they’re specifically built to cope with Conference football in the deep winter.

We may have been more lithe, but we also had added sophistication and class. Their strategy was to use their bulk to unsettle us and maybe get something – a goal – they could defend when they tired. It worked, to a point; we couldn’t settle on the ball and the referee couldn’t distinguish between a genuine tackle and a foul. As a result, we couldn’t control the game in the first half and they threatened to snatch a goal.

We just needed to weather the storm, if we could avoid conceding and not tire from the battering, we could press home our quality advantage late in the game. The risk was that they wouldn’t tire (although the way they started, it always it seemed likely they would), that we would concede (we didn’t) and that we were effectively planning to find a winner in a 30 minutes game. Of course, when you have a magician in your side, you’ve always got a chance.

So they leave having given it a good go, we scrape through and avoid the humiliation of a giant killing; which pretty much fitted the template of this kind of game.

Oxford United 3 Yeovil Town 2

Yeovil was an altogether more pleasant and enjoyable experience. Partly because of the performance, but mainly because they were pretty awful and the result, ultimately, didn’t mean very much. There was very little angst in the tie; it was more a cosy night in the pub with friends than a raucous all-nighter.

Even now, just two positive results from Wembley, it is kind of difficult to get excited about the JPT, that said, I did go, which might suggest something is stirring.

Millwall in the next round offers something interesting; Nathan Cooper’s passionate pre-match denunciation of the tie made an interesting point. Promotion from League 2 will not see a significant improvement in crowds – there are few ‘glamour’ clubs. What’s more it’s a heavily ‘northern’ division, meaning very few big away followings. So really, promotion only really means something – in a business sense – if you’re aiming for the Championship, where things really will improve financially.

Survival in League 1 is not really enough to justify the investment currently being made by the owners, so, if we do get promoted this year, we’ve got to compete and beat the likes of Millwall next. The tie will be a really interesting test of how close we are to doing that.

Yeovil wrap – Oxford United 2 Yeovil Town 0

I enjoyed retro day, it’s not easy making every match a genuine occasion in the modern game. We sit in the same seats with the same people having been bombarded by information all week. There’s very little novel about a home game. By Saturday we’re almost exhausted by football and come to be entertained, but not to participate.

I think that contributes towards the fact that up to the end of Saturday night just seven Premier League fixtures had been won by home teams all season. Tactics play a part, but crowds are a factor. They can become so apathetic that any home advantage is eroded.

But this initiative gave us something to contribute to; find your best shirt, share your best memory, unearth your oddest memorabilia. It creates momentum and energy through mass participating.

The hive-mind of Oxford fans acts as a binding force. We all remember the big stuff, but this sort of thing brings to the surface fragments of memories you’ve forgotten. It reminds you why you support the club in the first place. And because each fragment is a reminder of your own history, it reminds you of what makes you who you are. Your fellow fans are looking after your memories for you.

My personal highlight was a bloke in a long-sleeved red adidas away shirt from 1980 which tweaked so many faded memories. I’ve always loved away kits, the novelty of seeing your badge on a different colour always feels slightly exotic. I love long sleeve shirts because for years only the players wore them; replicas were always short sleeved. And, 1980/81 was the season I started watching Oxford regularly. It reminded me of being 8 years old, watching Andy Thomas and devouring each home programme for photos of away adventures to Newport or Lincoln. All of that from one glance across the South Stand Upper.

The theme, the game; there was a genuine sense of a phase ending. Six games in less than a month have propelled us into the season, now we can ease to a cruising speed without the angst of last year.

I don’t think we’ve met anyone we might consider promotion contenders, or are in that kind of form, unless we’re that team and we’re making everyone else look ordinary. It’s possible, we look comfortable at home and solid away. Nobody seems too carried away but neither is anyone shying away from the idea that promotion is the objective, or possible. There’s a satisfying confidence that all successful teams have.

The next few weeks will tell us more; Bristol Rovers and Portsmouth await. We may be leaving this phase of the season in a happy place, but the next one is just around the corner, and may be tougher.