Has the season even started yet?

A run is at its most vulnerable at the point some idiot in some car somewhere says “bloody hell how many penalties has Ryan Clark saved this year?” or “James Constable’s goals must be close to a record” or when some teenager who is not otherwise capable of working out the relevance of maths education calculates the permutations required for us to be top of the league. At that point, when someone mentions you’re on a run, it’s usually over.

At the beginning of the season; when it hasn’t yet hit full-gas and the press don’t have enough stories; focus will inevitably be on one minor issue relating to the rules of the game or, alternatively, some statistically unsound evidence of form.

Such was the article in the Guardian following the game against Plymouth. As flattering as it was, the fact it was written should have been enough to send a shiver down the average fan’s spine, not to mention a creeping sense of foreboding.

Following that endorsement, the game against Leeds had all the classic elements of these early season League Cup ties. Our form helped build a ‘feeling’ that we could win and there was the lure of a big stadium we all wanted to believe would be packed to the rafters. Think of the show we’d put on. The reality was a off-the-shelf shoeing in a echoey cavern of a stadium.

A few days later and it was off to York. Perhaps we’re getting mentally fatigued by the expectations built through the run and the splattering of biggish games. The combination of injuries, expectation and Tuesday night – we had all, they had none – seemed to be the difference between the two teams.

To be frank we could do with the Swindon game like a hole in the head. It’s a game we wouldn’t typically have interest in. However, there is some expectation that we will put on a performance, after all, it is them. It will mean nothing in the context of the season; everyone would welcome a win, of course, but a third defeat in a row will bring pressures we don’t need right now

By the time we walk off the pitch against Swindon on Wednesday we will have played nearly as much football against teams in divisions above us, as we have against those in the same division. We should take these games with a pinch of salt; this isn’t about results, more about finding (or re-finding) our feet.

Promotion wrap: Oxford United 3 York City 1

Two thoughts occupied my mind in the run up to the play-off final. 30,000+ fans, an unerring sense of self-belief; nothing could stop us now. And yet, there was always the idea that with 30,000+ fans and an unerring sense of self-belief; we were definitely going to screw this up.

There was no point of reference, no way of framing a trip to Wembley. It’s not like the Milk Cup Final in 1986 could offer an indication of how we might perform. Incapable of calculating a response to the game, I was engulfed by a sense of calm. Even Sunday morning was punctuated with attending to a 3-month-old baby with a cold and a trip to Tesco to buy supplies. The game, the second biggest in our history, perhaps the biggest, remained an incidental right up until I set off for the station.

I embraced the Wembley experience; the mobilisation of the yellow army, the noise and the immense swathes of colour in the stands. As I entered the bowl of the stadium, a lump came to my throat. Just making this stage and bringing these people together was a fabulous achievement. I applauded ostentatiously every crunching tackle, every catch, every passing sequence.

We cut through them with ease. Matt Green’s half-volley slamming into the top corner, James Constable’s belligerence in creating shooting space for number two. This was like ’86 after all; Wembley suited us just fine, it was a stage on which we flourished.

Then Ryan Clarke dropped the ball into his net and I could feel myself regressing, slouching into my seat. The minutes ticked by, Rankine fired wide when he should have scored. I sat and chewed my fingernails off. The game drifted past the hour mark, past 70 minutes, towards 80 minutes. I wasn’t enjoying it anymore, I wanted to go home, it’s a feeling I’d had before. We were going to concede, last minute for sure, this was going to extra time. We were going to lose.

As I sat, convincing myself that we were throwing it away again, I tried to work out what I was worrying about. If we did screw it up, I wasn’t worried for me. I’ll be back next season regardless. I’ve long given up on the central narrative; our story is a film where you stop caring about the central character because of the interminable and pointless plot twists.

Then it dawned on me, I was worried about Chris Wilder and the players. I’m not naïve enough to think that the players are Oxford fans. But I want their time at the club to mean something to them. I want it to change their careers, or at least leave them with a memory that would stay with them forever.

A defeat would have destroyed an epic season and with it would go the label that Wilder and his team had screwed it up just like all the others before them. They would have been no more than bit-part players in a pointless and turgid story of failure.

They just don’t deserve to be dragged into our sorry-arsed tale. You can see it in Wilder’s face, how proud he is, how hard he works, how utterly terrified he is of being seen as a failure. He’s the kind of person who is suspicious of praise; until he’s achieved something he won’t believe how good he is. He’s defined by his success, destroyed by failure.

Not only has he galvanised a team with a similar work ethic, he’s turned the club around. For all the bullshit, we were a big lumbering dinosaur heading to the grave, gorging on a high fat diet of self-importance. The travesty that Wilder and his players were not going to get rewarded for dragging the beast back from the brink was nagging away in my head.

It’s possible that Wilder has no idea of what he’s achieved. Promotion? Yes. Recognition? Yes. The guarantee of a decent managerial career? Maybe. All this, but above all he’s made it all worthwhile. Bankruptcy, food parcels, stadium delays, Peter Fear, Nigel Jemson, Steve Anthrobus, Firoz Kassam, Mark Wright, Graham Rix, Brian Talbot, Leyton Orient, throwing away two titles, five point deductions, thousands upon thousands upon thousands of pounds of wasted money. From this shitbag of awfulness and mockery he’s made us happy people.

Suddenly from our decade-long nuclear winter of despair appeared two elfin sprites exchanging passes like children having a kick around in the park. Just them and 30,000 proud parents watching on. Our Alfie and our Sam. Was there anyone else in the stadium? Was there anyone else in the world?

OK, so promotion out of the Conference is like being let out of jail only to find that you’ve been put on the sex offenders’ register, but for me and you, and Chris Wilder and his team, tasting the clean air of freedom is everything.

York City 1 Yellows 1

Martin Foyle had it all worked out; his big boys – Rankine and Ferrell – were going to put our big boys, Foster and Creighton, under pressure. They don’t like it up ‘em, it would seem. All accounts suggest that Foyle nearly cracked it judging by the pressure we came under in the draw against York.

Nearly. York nearly cracked us on the opening day of the season and nearly cracked us yesterday. Critically, they didn’t. They’ve come as close as anyone to nail us, but in the end we’ve come out with four points, they’ve got one. Of all the things to worry about this season; being beaten by York now isn’t one of them.

The ‘Conference Zidane’ Andy Burgess continued to make friends by predicting our future demise whilst shielding his eyes from the blinding reflection shining from his trophy cabinet.

What Mr Burgess misses is that his only influence over our choking, should he choose to drift in from the wing and actually give a shit, comes in February, when we head for Kenilworth Road. And even then, even if they take the points they’ll do no more than even up this year’s two game series.

The point is that each team offers a different challenge and that challenge manifests itself in three hours of football per year. Once that three hours is up, the challenge goes away and it’s on to the next one. A scratchy draw and a win against York – done. Time to move on.

Yellows 2 York 1, Kettering 1 Yellows 1, Histon 3 Yellows 4

There is no greater sporting spectacle than the Tour de France. This year Mark Cavendish won six stages finishing 131st, whilst fellow Brit Bradley Wiggins won none and finished fourth. It was a great British performance but also illustrates the key to our season.

To finish well in the overall race (General Classification or GC) you need to know when to attack. If you compete in the sprints, as Cavendish does brilliantly, you’ll get a lot of glory but no time benefits because everyone finishes together.

However, it is in the mountains and during time trials where time and the GC is won or lost. This year was no exception; early on Cavendish took stage after stage, while the main contenders remained pretty anonymous choosing to stay out of trouble, away from crashes and not use too much energy.

On the stage 15 to Verbier the true race for the GC, began to emerge. A group of riders hit the final climb of the stage; the elevation and speed began to tell and the also-rans fell away (including Cavendish who smiled knowingly as he let the others ride away). Eventually, the only riders left were the giants of the tour – Alberto Contador, Lance Armstrong, the Frank and Andy Schleck and Bradley Wiggins. They weren’t mucking around at the back of the field; when others cracked; they were ready to capitalise.

On the penultimate stage to Mont Ventoux, the pretenders and also-rans again fell away leaving the big five to fly up its slopes. Contador was mercurial in his victory, Wiggins immense. These two stages, plus two time trials, decided the whole race. The rest was about being sensible and strategic and not losing focus of the overall goal.

The Tour teaches us a good lesson about our season. Storming into an early lead sets expectations, grubbing around with also-rans brings about doubt and pressure. Early on we should be happy to stay amongst those who will eventually compete for the title. Us, Luton and the re-constructed Cambridge look like the ones to keep an eye on for now, Altrincham would appear to be doing a Cavendish, basking in some short term glory, but they should fall away eventually.

Following a home and away win (two potential demons out of the way) bookending the 1-1 draw at Kettering and we are ‘in-play’. We don’t want to be leading from the front too early even though it’s conceivable we will be before the end of the week. This will bring its own expectations and pressures and we’d do well to remember that conceding the lead this early in the season will do us little harm.

Our Verbier and Ventoux is likely to be between the Cambridge game on 19th December and AFC Wimbledon on the 23rd February. That’s when the title race should be decided (or at least, our role in it). If we can be top in February, the title should be ours. The trick for now is to stay out of trouble; which is precisely what we’ve been doing for the first week. Good work.

York City 0 Yellows 0

It’s been like watching Mel Gibson at the end of Braveheart. Shot in slow motion, our hero is seen slaying foes whilst taking increasingly mortal blows from an unstinting onslaught. From the high of Histon to the shit pit of a draw with York, the final blow was the weakest we’ve taken throughout the battle, but our resistance was shot.

Shit or bust football; to paraphrase Chris Wilder, week after week. We are pre-programmed by Hollywood to believe that heroes will triumph over adversity. We applied this in desperation and hope for months. This couldn’t end badly; such effort can’t go unrewarded. History should recognize this somehow, but it won’t. It’ll be ‘that season we had the points deducted’.

There is some poetic beauty in losing this period to history. Those who were there will remember. Those who couldn’t be bothered will never know. To really understand what has been achieved this season, you have to have been there before Christmas as well as after it. In fact, you need to have been there for the last 10 years and more. There is no meaningless trinket of a trophy, just a good feeling in your heart. I’ll take that.

The response will be interesting, from both fans and players. Most of the key members of the squad know their contracts are secure. Haldane and Chapman have the warm bosom of their parent clubs to return to. Those whose time is up will probably be fully aware of what the future holds. Can we muster the effort? Does it matter if we do?

Yellows 1 York 1, Yellows 1 Altrincham 0

As we contemplate what impact Manchester City’s £100 million pursuit of Kaka will have on top flight football, we should also contemplate what the long term impact of our five point deduction and defeat to York will have on us.

The reality is that it could well have set us back 10 years. The next new tranche of money (aside from a cut of any future Dean Whitehead transfer) will come in the summer with the season ticket renewals. By this time we’ll be a below midway non-league team in its fourth year of Conference football… deep in a recession.

The recession is all relative of course, we’ll still have the biggest crowds and income, but we’re also living relatively way beyond our means. It’ll take some feat to lever us out of the league in that situation.

The departure of Phil Trainer prior yesterday’s win over Altrincham leaves Oxblogger without an official favourite player. I spent most of yesterday’s game trying to decide on who should replace him.

Turley, Foster, Constable and Yemi are all too obviously ‘good’, although Yemi has a bit of the Vern Troye about him. He may be ineffective, but he’s sooo cute. Dress him up in a teddy bear outfit and he’d win player of the season every year.

What’s more, the Oxblogger Official Favourite Player is a player that stands for something. Phil Trainer appealed because he punched some way above his natural talents. It was this sense of achievement in adversity which appealed.

Lewis Haldane is the complete metaphor for the whole club and therefore was a candidate. He’s got a great infrastructure that we don’t own but manages to disappoint week after week.

Others are either too young or too injured. Which makes Oxblogger’s Official Favourite Player… Chris Willmott.

Yesterday, as I looked around me to see a sea of acne’d faces, I’ve sat in my seat since we moved to the new stadium, but all others around me have moved on and been replaced by another tranche of teenagers lured by an afternoon out with their mates (only to eventually find out that girls are much more interesting). I feel like an old oak tree in the middle of a new business park that has a preservation order on it.

And, this, pretty much describes Willmott. All others around him change, but he keeps plodding on. Presumably he’s learnt that it’ll never get much better than it is at the moment, this is it for him, this is his job. He is me, and I is him. I feel we have a connection. Congratulations Chris.