Monday, May 02, 2016

Carlisle wrap - Carlisle United 0 Oxford United 2

This is like a big three-dart checkout. Hartlepool was the first throw; it just needed to be as big as possible. The second throw, at Carlisle, needed something similar but also confirmed what was needed for the third and final throw. Each one step closer, each ratcheting up the pressure a little more.

And this is it, there is almost no margin for error; three points at home to Wycombe and the previous 67.5 hours of league football this year will have all been worthwhile, anything less and, well…

We haven’t beaten Carlisle in Cumbria for 20 years when Matt Elliot smashed that goal in. With that kind of record, fans might have been forgiven for forgoing the 500+ mile round trip in favour of chewing their nails in front of the radio. Instead, more than 2,200 made the trip north, a demonstration of unflinching support and belief; the club is a bit like that nowadays.

That last win at Carlisle was part of a run that took us to promotion, an omen that the gods are smiling on us? The momentum is definitely with us. Wycombe’s season is all played out, their form is reassuringly abject. There’s an idea that the debatable local rivalry will fuel their desire but I’m not so sure that will transfer to the players who will be worrying about contracts and the beach. We’ve been nursing players through games and worrying about the future, but on Saturday we can leave everything on the pitch and pick up the pieces over the summer.

But, I’m always reminded of what Tony Adams said before the 1998 World Cup. The consensus view was that England were certain to reach the quarter-final with semi-finals or final place a possibility.
Adams, however, stressed that even meeting the minimum expectation required effort and application, relying on theoretical superiority is not enough.

We need to be absolutely focussed on the task at hand, to do all the right things, everything we’ve been doing all season, just one more time. Thankfully, we have big-game experience invested in this squad. Our runs in the FA Cup and Johnstone’s Paint Trophy have battered us this year but, ironically, the very thing that has made this more uncomfortable than we’d have wanted, could be the very thing that sees us over the line.

The battle is joined. See you Saturday.  

Monday, April 25, 2016

Newport and Hartlepool wraps

Newport County 1 Oxford United 1

On the eve of the anniversary of our best day, the Newport game felt like this year’s worst day. With question marks over the goalkeeper and illness and injury throughout the the team, it felt like all the hard work of the season was suddenly in jeopardy. It feels like we’re a middle distance runner going out hard in the hope we can hang on in the final stretch. It wasn’t so much our position or even the result against Newport, it was the overall direction of travel that was of concern.

And with good reason, we’ve not had form like this since we suffered back-to-back defeats to Hartlepool and Shrewsbury last season. At the final whistle we’d taken just six points from five games meaning we were left with four contenders fighting for two places with just a point between them all.

The following day the club gallantly knife and forked the Milk Cup celebrations; everyone smiled bravely while calculating the what-ifs for the rest of the season. It was like the gentry were celebrating the Queen’s birthday while a desperate war raged around them.

Oxford United 2 Hartlepool 0

The need for a Dunkirk spirit is one which can make or break you.

The week started with MacDonald on a drip in hospital, O’Dowda on his sick bed, Skarz out for the season, Lundstram breaking down in training and Roofe nursing an injury.

But the spirit can galvanize you also and all ultimately played their part. Joe Skarz typified the spirit; where he could easily have written off his season, instead he got his head down and worked to drag himself back into the team. Just when we need experience and he comes to our rescue.

Earlier in the season, when we were flying, we benefitted from at least one player driving things forward, Roofe, Hylton, Lundstram and Sercombe all had periods of running the team. Skarz was always there, but he was never the star of the show. We’ve been lacking a star recently, maybe he’s going to be the unlikely hero of the final push.

In truth, ignoring the context, we were excellent and pretty comfortable throughout the game against Hartlepool. We benefitted from Ruffels and Maguire’s more compact game, we benefited from the tension and the need not to take risks. We were happy with the need to win rather than entertain. It drove a discipline with no silly lapses like against Luton. And at the same time we entertained in an uncomfortable, gnawing kind of way.

At the end our two enfant terribles; Maguire, who sometimes struggles to switch on and Hylton who struggles ever to switch off, held the ball at the corner flag balancing pragmatism and professionalism with impishness and creativity. It was a microcosm of the performance.

By god it’s tense, but the truth is that we’re not throwing away promotion, we’re thriving heroically in the face of growing adversity.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Luton wrap - Oxford United 2 Luton Town 3

Luton Town is a horrible club. I mean they are a horrible club, but I also mean that they are a horrible club to face at this stage of the season. They are rarely terrible, but if you look at the table, neither are they wildly successful. This is a dangerous thing to encounter; a banana skin duly slipped up on.

Their first goal was a mess, but these things happen, a catalogue of errors. The second one, though technically the best of their three, was truly criminal. Having conceded so horribly and so close to half-time, it was time to slow everything down, retain the ball and re-group over the break. But, we flapped and floundered and they scored again.

What is needed now is cool heads, we have bags of ability, but minds are tired and we’ve got to think a bit more about managing games. We’re lacking the steadying presence of Joe Skarz, Ryan Taylor, Alex MacDonald and Jake Wright. These are the players that provide the platform for others to play.

Only Jake Wright is fit, of course, which presents a problem; where to play him. There was some debate about changing the system to accommodate Wright – either in a back three with Dunkley and Mullins, or with Mullins, or Wright, playing as a full-back – a role both have played, without ever looking entirely comfortable.

Changing the system seems to be a risk though. Let's remind ourselves that we are still the second best team in this division, in the main the system works. But, I think it’s time to get experience into the team by whatever means possible; and that means finding space for Wright in the starting line-up. But, who does he replace?

Chey Dunkley has been excellent, rightly voted player of the month, and he offers something at set-pieces that we’ve missed for years. But Wright is a settling influence who alongside Mullins provides a solid foundation for the rest of the team. This is harsh on Dunkley, and no reflection on him or his performances, but I think we gain more than we lose by bringing in Wright. We need to bring in experience wherever we can get it.

Saturday was a blow, although our form is better than people perceive – this is partly down to the distorting impact of our less than stellar home form. We need to remember we're still second and that we were never likely to secure promotion before the last couple of games of the season anyway.

Cool heads is what we need, on and off the pitch.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Crawley wrap - Crawley Town 1 Oxford United 5

Winning is about two competing mind-sets – the first is the sense of being unbeatable. If you don’t believe you can win, then any set-back will crush you. The second mind-set is about recognising that you are not, in fact, unbeatable. More specifically, winning comes only from the application of effort and not a god given invincibility. If you don’t put effort in, you get beaten.

Get the balance between the two mind-sets right and you’ve got the winning formula. Following the mauling of Crawley, you get a sense we’re right in that sweet spot.

Six days after Wembley, three teams breathing down our neck, several key players out and a goal down; that could have punctured anyone’s confidence. Instead, a belief in our ability added to the rigorous application of a tried and trusted system resulted in a spectacular second half display. And with it emphatic confirmation of our promotion credentials.

The net result is that, from a position where we looked like we were being dragged into a dogfight, we’ve once again stretched the gap between us and fourth.

All of this was achieved without Roofe, Lundstram, Skarz, Taylor or Wright – certain starters before Christmas. There’s a moment after Maguire’s opener where he celebrates with Josh Ruffels and Jordan Evans – three players who weren’t on the scene pre-Christmas now playing a key part in getting us up.

All of which points to the durability of the squad; the players change, the system doesn’t, the results are the same. If we can go into a game without these players and still win, you’ve got to be confident about the future both short term and long term.

Wembley, which could have been a destructive experience, may have had the galvanising effect we need. We are good enough to get promoted as long as we rigorously apply the process we’ve followed all season. We’re top of a four horse race, we’re four points clear; sometimes it feels like those horses are gaining on us, but none are showing a run of form to worry about. With Wembley out of the way and promotion within our grasp, it’s difficult to see what will stop us now.

Tuesday, April 05, 2016

Barnsley wrap – Barnsley 3 Oxford United 2

The anxiety started early and unexpectedly. Wembley announced a ‘100% bag check’ and my mind started racing. What did they know? Did ISIS consider the lower league’s showcase final to be a ‘soft target’? I’ve never been that bothered about watching the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy, I definitely didn’t want to die doing it.

Then there were the 35,000 Oxford fans travelling down the Chiltern line. Twitter ablaze with ungodly start times; would I be too late leaving when I’d planned? What if I couldn’t get on a train? What if I lost my daughter in the crush? A sense of dread about everything apart from the game itself.

In the end ISIS didn’t attack, we did get on the train and my daughter had the time of her life. The place buzzed in the spring sun. We passed a playground full of children dressed in Barnsley and Oxford shirts. They played together, like hamsters in a cage, oblivious to their rivalries until some Barnsley kids, completely without malice, commandeered a roundabout chanting ‘Oxford BOO’. An anthropologists dream.

It was more like a works outing than a football match. People ate lunch in Prezzo, perused the shopping centre shops and stopped to chat awkwardly with people they only vaguely knew because they happen to sit near each other at home games.

A cup final devoid of tension; while the Milk Cup Final in ’86 was the pinnacle of our history and the play-off final critical to our very survival, this wasn’t even the most important game of the week.

But it was difficult not to be impressed by the mass movement of the yellow army. Reassuring that, though you and I choose to watch Mansfield at home over the Bake Off, many thousands of others are with you in spirit; today they’re here in body.

I met Brinyhoof at the Bobby Moore statue, we bumped into each other with our dads at the Milk Cup Final 30 years ago. Last time it was accidental; this time it was planned; completing some kind of circle. We headed to our seats via escalators, bar code scanners and glass doorways. This isn’t 1986 anymore, this isn’t any kind of football we’ve grown up with.

Oh what a joy, a bank of yellow and blue, a happy, united, contented club. A glorious noise. We see a couple of people wearing Weiner Neustadt t-shirts; what Brinyhoof calls ‘Our Sex Pistols at the Manchester Lesser Free Trade Hall’, one day we’ll all claim to have been there, at the start. But, for now, this, we’re all here for this.

In the stadium the pre-match entertainment is underway, it’s cheesy and choreographed, but absolutely necessary. Wembley is so comfortable it feels like you’re at the theatre, it’s tempting to sit passively and enjoy the show. Something needs to ignite it. There are flags and flames, women in tight tops and short skirts, men in military uniform – an anthropologists dream.

Eventually the players appear, Wembley’s great design flaw is that they come on from the side of the pitch rather than one end as at the old stadium. That epically long walk could break players, this short walk from the side doesn’t have the same effect.

The great unspoken is finally spoken, Jake Wright drops to the bench. It’s been on the cards for weeks, he hasn’t done anything wrong this season, but Chey Dunkley’s form makes him hard to drop. Joe Skarz isn’t fit after a season of sterling service, life just isn’t fair.

We start well, though, looking entirely comfortable. After some probing, Alex MacDonald swings a huge cross over and Callum O’Dowda attacks the ball, beating his man and nodding home. The stadium fills with noise; O’Dowda, one of our own, belts down the flank until he’s caught by his team mates. Modern day footballers are too knowing of the cameras that film them, goal celebrations are choreographed for the TV, but this is visceral and real. If his team mates hadn’t caught him, he’d have ended up in the crowd never to return.

Half-time comes and it’s difficult to imagine being more comfortable in a final at Wembley. There’s none of the grizzly angst of the Play-off final or the shock of the Milk Cup.

My half-time routine was pretty straight forward; a trip to the toilet and then a drink. I have to queue for both. I walk back past groups of people casually drinking pints and plastic cups of wine. As I get back to my seat the players are already out. There are thousands of people still under the concourse as we kick off, it creates an oddly sleepy atmosphere.

And it kills us, Barnsley have to come out positively if they’re to get anything out of the game. We need to be disciplined, we need to slow everything down. Call it inexperience, but Wembley is a big pitch, legs become heavy, particularly after a half-time break. We need to hold out for 15 to 20 minutes, control the game, but that’s not really our game at all. Suddenly everyone looks like they’re wading through treacle.

In a flash we’re 2-1 down and then there’s a moment of magic from Adam Hamill. The game threatened to be a shoot-out between Hamill and Kemar Roofe. Hamill took his moment, Roofe didn’t, and that pretty much made the difference between the two teams. Everything else was equal.

Roofe does make his contribution, providing a perfect cross for Danny Hylton to make it 3-2. In the context of the game, it’s meaningless, but it’s a great moment for the club and players.

Waring and Bowery come on, but we’re missing John Lundstram’s more expansive passing. Ruffels has been excellent but his compact game means the strikers are picking up balls 30-40 yards from goal. Man, it’s such a big pitch.

There is no Potter moment, no Jeremy Charles moment, the game peters out. I’m not sure I wanted extra-time, in the end, you know, because of the trains and ISIS. I wanted to win, I didn’t want to lose our unbeaten Wembley record, particularly not like this, but losing was never going to be a heartbreaker. I just hope that the players recognise it for what it is and that it doesn’t distract them from the real objective of the season. Not just because it’s important, but because we, they, deserve the recognition for what our club has become in the last 12 months. 

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Cambridge wrap – Cambridge United 0 Oxford United 0

Easter was supposed to be telling, but it’s turned out to be as confusing as ever. Bristol Rovers, who looked like they were on a charge faltered at Carlisle, Plymouth, who looked like they were on the slide took maximum points from their two games, and Accrington have returned to the promotion fold like a bad smell.

We had the worst Easter of all the key teams, which was down to the Stevenage result more than the draw with Cambridge. Cambridge retain a remote outside chance of the play-offs, so they were no pushover. The point was fine, it’s just that we really could have done with all three.

Ultimately the picture remains as it has done for months; Northampton continue to run away with it, while Plymouth and ourselves sit in the promotion spots. The others dance around threatening to catch us and then failing to do so. If we were to be scientific and objective, evidence suggests this is how it will remain, it just doesn’t feel much like that.

The run-ins for the key protagonists tells us little, apart from Bristol Rovers’ away game at Northampton on the 9th April, there are few fixtures which would describe as either walk-overs or banana skins. Everyone is involved in a League 2 shitfight from here on in.

The good news is we should return from Wembley in a promotion slot with O’Dowda and Kenny back and Lundstram serving only one more game of his suspension. Plus, Wembley will be behind us and then only thing we’ll have to worry about is getting over the line.

Lundstram (the return, or not, in fact)

So, Lundstram misses Wembley joining Billy Hamilton and, to a lesser extent, Adam Murray in the Oxford United Wembley Heartache Hall of Fame.

The key defence was that Lundstram got the ball, but I suspect that’s the least important thing in the argument. The priority is probably the safety of the player and the question of whether Lundstram was in control of his tackle. Key to that, then, is not the foot that made connection with the ball, but the foot that should have been controlling his movement. The replay is inconclusive as whether Lundstram could have controlled his movement to prevent serious injury if he needed to. The referee thought not and I guess the FA couldn’t see sufficient evidence to say otherwise.

It does still seem unfair for Lundstram to miss the JPT for a misdemeanor in the league. If it had been done at any other time during the season it wouldn't have had an impact on his Wembley appearance. He just seems to be a victim of timing.

Wilder (the return)

Chris Wilder is obsessed with our failure, it seems. Key evidence for this was an extract in the Football League Paper tweeted by Radio Oxford’s own charity mugger; Selfy.
“Some other teams in this division can play fantastic football but they might win one week and get beat the next and they’ll be playing League 2 football next year. Or they’ll be in the play-offs at best. We’ll be champions and we’ll be in League One.”
The implication was that he’s referring to us, which seems unlikely given that we’re not a team hoping for the play-offs ‘at best’. I think it’s a more general point that winning the title is the definitive statement of ‘success’ not whether it's done in the right way or not is irrelevant.

That’s not to say Wilder wouldn’t be happy seeing us fail. There’s a perverse pleasure in seeing your former employer struggle because it shows important you were to their success.

But, that assumes Wilder, had he chosen to stay at Oxford, would still be the manager now and therefore ‘doing a Northampton’. Even if he had survived the Eales takeover – which is unlikely - I suspect his results last season would have been little better than they were under Michael Appleton. In all likelihood Wilder would have produced another ‘nearly’ season, which he probably wouldn’t have survived.

Obsession is a emotive, but I suspect once Northampton have got promotion his next favourite thing would be for us not to be promoted. Which is all very disingenuous because without his success at Oxford, he wouldn’t have the Northampton job in the first place.

So Wilder is comparing Oxford United as it is today, barely a reflection on the club he left, against an Oxford United that might have existed in the very unlikely event that he’d have been allowed to continue managing the club. Which, ultimately, is Wilder creating an argument with a himself, something he seems prone to do.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Stevenage wrap – Oxford United 1 Stevenage 1

One thing psychologists increasingly believe is that punishment doesn’t work. John Lundstram’s red card against Stevenage will see him miss Wembley, but that doesn’t teach him to tackle properly. In fact, it just breeds contempt and anxiety, his frustrations at missing the game could outlast the punishment, the fear of consequences from producing another bad tackle at a crucial time could leave him a lesser player.

But surely a bad tackle can’t be left unpunished? Well, no, but look at the consequences of the challenge. He was sent off and we struggled to scrape together a point, where we could and should have comfortably gained three. Everyone around us won putting pressure on future games.

So there were consequences of Lundstram’s challenge, but to keep punishing him, and particularly ban him from a trip to Wembley, seems pointlessly harsh.

His replacement next week is likely to be Josh Ruffels, which has its advantages. For one, Barnsley won’t know him, but also Ruffels’ game is more compact. Wembley offers Lundstram a perfect opportunity to use the full range of his passing, but if that’s stopped, we’d struggle. Ruffels playing percentages may force a more counter-attacking style which could work well with the pace of Roofe, power of Bowery and unpredictability of Hylton.  

The Stevenage game felt like going to work without a belt on. Slightly awkward and uncomfortable, but not in a way that anyone outside would really notice.

Lundstram’s challenge looked very suspect on first viewing although with the benefit of slow motion it doesn’t look quite as bad. Any appeal is likely to hinge on whether the referee is considered to have made a reasonable judgement; which he did, or whether he made precisely the correct decision, which, maybe, he didn’t.

In addition, it was a lot to ask Mullins at right-back to bomb up and down the flank as Baldock or Kenny might. It all left us a bit toothless upfront rather than vulnerable at the back.

In addition, the foul for the penalty was so ludicrous, it was like the referee couldn’t bring himself to issue a red card for risk of devaluing the whole idea of sending someone off. It was, however, clearly a goalscoring opportunity and a should have been a straight red.

Once again, Roofe got into a spat with another player. Previously it was Chris Maguire against Orient, on Saturday it was Sercombe for the penalty. What’s driving this? It can’t have helped Sercombe’s preparation for the penalty. Perhaps Roofe has got an eye on John Aldridge’s goalscoring record and has lost a little bit of focus on the bigger picture, maybe he’s become a little bit too starry, maybe he knew that with 10 men, playing with one up front, his chances would be at a premium. Whatever the reason, it’s got to stop if it’s not going to cause wider problems.