Monday, September 19, 2016

Milton Keynes wrap - MK Dons 0 Oxford United 0


This week I saw a photo of the 1980/81 squad. Although my first ever Oxford game was five years earlier, the 1980 squad is the first I consciously remember. In the picture were Malcolm Shotton, Gary Briggs, Kevin Brock and Andy Thomas who in six short years would be part of our greatest ever triumph.

It was a reminder that our success wasn’t just about Robert Maxwell’s money or Jim Smith’s genius. Among those unassuming legends-in-waiting were also some of my early heroes; Roy Burton, whose shorts fell down when he took a goal kick, John Doyle, who enthralled me with his ability to reach the half way line his clearances and Joe Cooke, who I remember being impressed by because he was black. I was very young at the time.

On Saturday we headed for MK Dons, a club who are younger than Facebook and who didn’t exist when we last lost to Swindon. Oxford fans, like many fans, sneered at the Stadium MK experience. But this was really just retro-fitting their experience to match their pre-conceived prejudices.

In fact, the stewards were friendly, the traffic was well managed, the stadium facilities are top class; it is a very nice place to watch football. One person said that it was a great stadium, but not for football. So what was it great for? Powerboating? It might be a templated modern stadium bowl, but people who think football should only be played in a Victorian goliath are the same people who think our modern rail system should be steam powered.

I don’t like MK Dons’ history any more than anyone else, no club should be able to buy its way into the Football League. But they are not the only football club to be born out of controversy. Take Liverpool; they were formed by the owner of Anfield after he evicted Everton from his ground and set up his own club, also called Everton (later renamed Liverpool). Nobody thinks of Liverpool as the ‘real’ Everton in the way that people think that Wimbledon are the rightful owners of MK Dons’ place in the league. The MK Dons controversy just happened in a time when people were particularly focussed on protecting the game’s perceived heritage.

Blinded by the moral issues, people conveniently ignore that when Peter Winkelman took over the club, Wimbledon were £30m in debt, falling to the bottom of the league and without a stadium of their own. Merton council were disinterested in helping save their local club as it plummeted into the abyss. Their fanbase weren’t that much more interested. Relocating to somewhere with better market conditions was a logical, if uncomfortable, option.

The Dons will always carry a stigma, there was a time when people wouldn’t even enter the ground, and even now When Saturday Comes magazine will not talk about them, but in the main they are a pantomime villain rather than a moral travesty.

But, it is difficult to imagine how they will realise whatever vision they have for their future. When they’re winning games and playing big teams, I imagine that going regularly to the stadium is an enjoyable experience for locals. But do the roots go deeply enough into the city to keep the club going when times are tough?

It seems not, you don’t get much sense that Dons fans are urging their team to glory given how few were in the stadium on Saturday. The official attendance was over 12,000, but that would mean the stadium was nearly half full, which seems very generous. You get no sense of a rich history binding the club together, a sense of purpose, a real desire to survive and thrive. Probably because there is no rich history to protect.

Karl Robinson’s approach to football is as one dimensional as his club. It reminded me of a good second division side. He maintained a rigid shape which gave little away and tried to knock the ball beyond our back-four for Agard to chase, a tactic that never really worked, but which he religiously stuck to none-the-less.

Of course, we know George Baldock, and it was telling just how shackled he is in Robinson’s system. Maybe he was simply pinned back by Marvin Johnson, but there were opportunities for him to bomb forward like he did for us last season, but instead he skulked around on the halfway line while another attack broke down.

We went through periods of not being much better, and looked dead on our feet in the closing minutes. But, by-and-large, I thought we’re looking increasingly comfortable at this level and we can start feeling optimistic about the season.


Karl Robinson laughably claimed his team were the better side, ignoring that his goalkeeper had won man of the match and only one of the four or five action replays shown on the big video screens featured a Dons attack. But then, this is the Karl Robinson who reneged on a season-long loan deal for Baldock before being apparently aghast when Rob Hall walked out on the club to sign for us. He’s a funny chap, just like his club.      

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Swindon wrap - Oxford United 2 Swindon Town 0


The derby football can’t be arsed with. Oxford and Swindon have now played six times since 2011, all to near full houses, all good games, all with meaning, incident, narrative and purpose. Yet TV; so desperate to saturate schedules with live football, barely gives it a nod of attention. Even the police couldn’t be bothered to move the fixture this year presumably for fear of disrupting early morning showings of Sausage Party at Vue or the Kassam’s car boot sale on Sunday.

Apparently, this week perma-tanned transfer junky and Sky Sport ‘babe’ worrier Jim White said the game wasn’t a derby. White is so obsessively on-message at Sky, when BT launched its sports channels he fronted a spoiling telethon that visited every ground in the country to eulogise Sky’s imperious ability to undertake acts of grandiose buffoonery. White treated it like he was avenging the public flaying of Rupert Murdoch's carcass. It’s fair to say that if White doesn’t think this is a derby, then he’s pretty much quoting Sky’s editorial policy.

Admittedly, there was something more underwhelming about the build-up this year even though it was still only the second home league fixture between the clubs in 15 years. The joy of the classic double-header in 2011/12 was perhaps deadened slightly by two no-less thrilling but distinctly less glamorous JPT games. Like having unforgettably acrobatic mind-blowing sex followed by two sessions of perfunctory rutting. The mess was the same, in the moment it was just as fun, but the memories were less vivid.

There was something particularly perfect about the 2011/12 derbies, a tinder box of contempt which had grown over a decade exploding into life. The evil Italian fascist against the doughty Englishman. A racist chicken arrabiata against a Yorkshire pudding. And, against all odds, good won out.

But, with Brexit, Donald Trump and the success of Mrs Brown’s Boys, the world is now a more confusing place. We have a professorial coach whose mean scowl and tattooed tree-trunk arms make him look like he’s been released from a state penitentiary. I mean, this is what intelligent, functioning adults look like nowadays but it still challenges the stereotypes we draw comfort from.

Swindon are historically schizophrenic, ludicrous highs followed by preposterous lows, but the 2016 vintage seems to be almost neither. I had to look up who their manager was such is the depth they’ve slipped to since the glamour and attention gained by DiCanio’s capture. It appears Luke Williams’ greatest triumph in football was developing Yaser Kasim and Raphael Rossi Branco. Me neither, but if you ever need a name for a character in a game of Grand Theft Auto, then any combination of Yaser, Kasim, Raphael, Rossi and Branco will work.

Unlike recent encounters, the day broke with rain sleeting down. A planned display, painstakingly laid out by dedicated Oxford ultras had been vandalised by people using the act as a proxy for having a girlfriend or being happy. But, despite the setbacks, there was a calmness; the rain would come; the display would be fixed, the game would be played.

And the display was fixed; last year’s giant flag was a truly breathtaking spectacle, this was at least on a par. I’ve said several times that I want Oxford players to be able to look back on their time at the club as the best of their career. As the players came out, I saw Wes Thomas, a journeyman of the lower leagues looking up at the sea of flags. Is it possible that he’s seen anything like it? Is there a club the size of Oxford, or some considerable size larger, that can put on such a fan-driven display in the UK? The Swindon fans threw a few streamers and looked defeated by comparison.

For the first time this season we started with purpose, Lundstram snapped away in a midfield Swindon tried to flood. Rothwell looked more focussed and Sercombe is getting the freedom he needs to do what he does. This three-tiered midfield worked like a dream. By comparison the Swindon midfield wilted almost immediately.

Ultimately though, this was Chris Maguire’s show; he has the arrogance and ability to make this sort of game his own. There were times when it looked like the whole game had been scripted just to showcase his ability; enraging the Swindon fans, taunting their players with his passing and then scoring the goals that made the difference.

Yes, the penalty looked soft and there were some questionable decisions which went our way. MacDonald probably should have been sent off for his unnecessary challenge on Vigouroux. But, what got lost in the noise is that this was our best performance of the season and the first time things really clicked into place.  

Maguire’s second goal was no fluke; the pitch was wet and slippery and a well-timed challenge was always going to offer a chance. OK, Vigouroux with a bit of composure might have chosen to drag the ball back allowing Maguire to slide past harmlessly rather than attempting to launch it under pressure, but if Maguire’s connection had been a goal-saving block at the other end of the pitch, it would have been viewed a moment of true class.  Just because this was a goal scored, rather than a goal saved, doesn’t make it any less good.

And it was typical of Maguire, a demonstration of his class mixed with his ability to humiliate and demoralise the opposition. As we go higher up the league, this kind of savvy will be increasingly important.

Swindon by comparison look dead behind the eyes, not the vibrant seething beast of the Di Canio years, just a stagnating pool of ooze. They weren’t as bad as last year, but not far off. In the past, wins have felt like we were defeating a looming evil, but now it feels like defeating the common cold – once lethal, now moribund and benign.

Maybe they don’t feel the sense of occasion like we do, but if your opponents have a little extra purpose, you’ve got to find something to match it whatever the game. This isn’t us overstating the importance of the game, it’s just us enjoying the occasions that get presented to us in a way they clearly don’t. When they give up on games like this, you wonder how far their standards might drop.


By comparison, this was another calm execution of a well-planned process, dismantling their midfield and disrupting any game plan they might have had. 2012 may have been a high-energy rush of adrenalin, this was a demonstration of calm domination. For those of us who have watched these games for decades it feels odd to be in that position, but it’s no less satisfying because of it.  

Monday, September 05, 2016

Rochdale wrap - Oxford United 1 Rochdale 0


All living things are basically commonly found elements organised in an unfathomably complicated way. If you were to try to create something living in a laboratory from its core elements the closest you might get to creating something that actually lives is a smelly sludge. Scientists know much more than you, but compared to the totality of knowledge, they don’t know very much.

Following a successful transfer window in which the promotion squad from last year was radically re-modelled, it feels like we have the core elements we need to be a pretty decent League 1 side, but it doesn’t yet feel like it has wholly combined to create the living, breathing side Michael Appleton envisages.

Kemar Roofe’s return as guest of honour at half-time against Rochdale was a telling reminder of what might be missing. The first 45 minutes seemed typical of all our home games this season; we matched our opponents but they looked more threatening.

The difference was pace, our lack of it concentrated the midfield meaning that balls went astray because there was no time to pick a pass and when there was, it had to be absolutely perfect to weave its way through crowds of players. What Rochdale did, and we didn’t do, was break with speed at a moment’s notice. This ability to shift gears is the most significant difference between League 2 and 1 so far.

Marvin Johnson might just be the key component, the DNA, we need to bring the everything together and fire us into life. He has pace, which is essential, although he really only showed it in the last minutes, but his presence was, in some ways, more important.

The by-product is that opposing defenders sit just slightly deeper to try and cope with his threat. That gives a fraction more space in midfield which should help Lundstram’s passing, allow Sercombe to run from deep and give the likes of Rothwell, as well as Roberts and Crowley, the space to move the ball. Rothwell was keen to make an impact, but he had to attack from deep in the first half and just ended up in traffic, second half he had space to dribble into putting Rochdale more not the back foot.

The new rules around loans mean that there is much more pressure on teams to get themselves together in the summer transfer window – there’s no more tweaking now until January. So all the components are now in place, time to bring them to life. We can ease into that over the next few weeks. Who's next?


Oh.