Saturday, August 29, 2015

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.

Coming Up: Yeovil Town

The drop

Perhaps Yeovil are a different team to the one we last encountered, but I've always thought of them as a model of what I wish we were. Last time we met them they were on their way to a place in the Championship while we were in the Conference. Now we meet as equals, but, it seems, on very different trajectories.

Three defeats preceded a narrow 3-2 win over Luton on Saturday. Luton themselves seem to be buckling under the pressure of being among the pre-season favourites; that was the second 2-goal lead they've thrown away in as many weeks. 

Are Yeovil struggling with the pressure resulting from their double relegation? If they are, then that helps us, this will be game five for us of which three have come down from League 1. There appears little to fear from those who have come down and hitting them when they're still getting acclimatised is an advantage. Only Leyton Orient seem to affecting a decent bounce back; but I'll take one out of four in the context of our promotion chances. From our perspective, our no-more-than-solid away form means that three points is the requirement today.

OUFC Retro 

The game is a designated OUFC Retro day. I approve, although in a season styled wholly on nostalgia it may be difficult to tell the difference between this and every other game this year. Plus, if you've ever spent any time in the South Stand Upper, you'll know that Matchwinner, Manor Leisure and Carlotti are not considered retro, but are the brands of a modern dandy.

Me? If I can be bothered to go into the loft, I'll probably go with the 1993 centenary shirt or this New Balance beauty from 1998

Old game of the day 

There was one point when Yeovil Town were set to do an Oxford United and become a plucky over-achiever dooking it out amongst the big boys. Instead, they seem to be regressing back to their more natural state.

This is from 2009 in the FA Cup; in some ways it captured the spirit of the time. Altogether a very proper FA Cup tie, even if it's slightly galling for us to be considered a giant killer.

From the blog

As good as that win was, my reaction to it was a pretty angry one:
"I suppose that Saturday’s win over Yeovil was a giant killing, but that seems to be a technicality only. Even ITV seemed at a bit of a loss in how to deal with the result. Ned Boulting’s knowing sneer, a constant presence when reporting on Tour de France cheats, was on display to let us know that the institution of FA Cup giant killing was being defiled."
Read on

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Sheffield Wednesday wrap - Sheffield Wednesday 1 Oxford United 0

If you Google 'Hillsborough', as you might expect, you get pictures of people being crushed to death in 1989. The word is synonymous of a grim past, where it was once a step from Wembley.

Following a lower league club in the cup can become a tour of what feels like abandoned religious temples. Look around and you can see the echoes of something once glorious, but it lacks people to give it purpose. A great dinosaur, now extinct.

It's partly because football is no longer a predominantly a social activity, its a form of entertainment. Fewer people go because it defines them, more people choose to attend based on the prospect of getting value for money. Will they be entertained? If that prospect is remote, then people stay away. We're not particularly box office in Sheffield.

There's a lingering feeling with teams like Sheffield Wednesday, as to what their point is. Are they preying for a rich benefactor to come along and propel them forward? Are they just treading water  because that's fractionally less sad than giving up? And then, for us, is giving them a game an act of heroism or a missed opportunity? Is it neither?

Michael Appleton seemed to be similarly conflicted; was the deliberately weakened team a sign that he wasn't interested in the fixture? Did it suggest that there are more important objectives to focus on? It was understandable given this was our sixth game in just 18 days, but in the name of consistency, I don't like the idea that you pick and choose the games you compete for.

Some tried to read things into Jake Wright's omission, but given the other changes, including nailed on starters Roofe and Hylton, I suspect this was a simple case of giving him a rest rather than anything tactical. As he approaches 30 he probably needs to manage his fitness and recovery more closely these days.

In the end it was one of those harmless defeats in Yorkshire that seem to have peppered our cup campaigns since our return to the league. We weren't humiliated, so there's no real risk to any confidence we've built up in recent weeks. We're also not burdened another fixture to clutter up the schedule. Newcastle might have been fun, but it's a bloody long way away. Yeovil on Saturday represents the end of a frantic opening month, now we're out of the cup, it's time to settle into a more controlled rhythm.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Coming Up: Sheffield Wednesday

The drop

A distraction or an opportunity? The problem with the start of the season is the mush of league and League Cup results makes it hard to fully know how you’re getting on. To lose to Sheffield Wednesday tonight is to lose an unbeaten record, does that mean anything? Logically, no, Wednesday aren’t on any critical path to promotion, but emotionally, maybe; the template of success driven out of performances against Notts County and Luton will be eroded a little bit by a defeat. Suddenly, Yeovil becomes a high pressure game; we don’t want to lose two on the trot.

And if we win? Well, that’s another step closer to an inevitable defeat – unless we’re planning on winning the trophy. It might be a Premier League team next, and they could really remind us of our own mortality. But, on the other hand, we did play West Brom last year and that ended in the almost perfect defeat, if such a thing can exist.

Really, when it comes to Cup games, you want to be like a pacemaker in a middle distance race. We want to heroically lead the race for a period before stepping off the track before you’re consumed and humiliated by your better opponents.


OUFC retro

Nineteen years ago we played Sheffield Wednesday in the League Cup, so history is repeating itself tonight. This one is a proper treat, the first leg at Hillsborough ended 1-1 with a Paul Moody goal. The Manor was rocking for the return leg, one of the last times it was like this for a cup tie.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Mansfield wrap - Mansfield Town 1 Oxford United 1

Teams that win promotion show a relentless quality. If you consider the difference between promotion and the play-offs last year was one point and you spread that across 46 games, that’s just 0.02 points per game. The good teams and the less good teams broadly do all the same things; difference between success and failure is right in the margins.

I remember playing Crawley in 2012 when they were promoted. We had aspirations for promotion ourselves and played with a fantastic intensity. It felt like we were playing at maximum capacity which was great to watch. But what we considered to be extraordinary was what they considered to be under-par. We led, but in the last minute, with a certain inevitably, they equalised. Extrapolate those moments of marginal difference across the entire season and the margin grows considerably. We ended the season 16 points behind Crawley.

Maintaining that intensity throughout a season is the biggest challenge facing any team hoping for promotion. This is particularly true against teams like Mansfield. In many ways, this was the first true test of our potential. It was away, it was off the back of a top-notch performance, it was against one of those teams it’s difficult to get too excited about. What drives the performance is not the opposition, but the inner intensity to perform, which in turn, is driven by the objective.

So, as a result of the draw with The Stags, are we demonstrating that relentlessness and intensity? Not yet, but there's no doubt we're robust. We've now played four games and conceded first in all of them. And yet we remain unbeaten. That's a team with a solid resolve. Those statistics point towards a team who should be harbouring ambitions for the play-offs. Going beyond that requires a bit more; Jim Smith used to say that to win the title you had to win at home and draw away. The draw against Crawley on the first day of the season means we're slightly behind that sort of run rate. As a result, as encouraging as the signs might be, the jury remains out as to whether we're quite at the point where an automatic spot, or better, is realistic.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Coming up: Mansfield Town

The drop 

It doesn’t feel like it, but Tuesday was only our third League game of the season; two against just-relegated teams and one against someone that is heavily tipped to do well. And we’re doing more than fine, unbeaten – plus the destruction of a Championship side - and with a dizzying performance against Notts County under our belt.

And now for something completely different. When Saturday Comes’ season preview had a lot of fans, including our own representative, predicting a mid-table finish for their club. It illustrates a malaise pervasive across League 2 which hopes for the best and expects, if not the worst, something rather uninspiring.

Mansfield, up next, is one of those teams whose initial requirement is basic survival. These are teams that are harder to beat; more conservative, less interested in putting on a show, more interested in picking up points. There is a huge wodge of these teams, each one needs knocking down, its relentless and exhausting, and not very pretty. In some ways, the real season starts here.  

Old game of the day 

Mansfield Town, one of those teams that were once an irrelevance to us, but who now seem to be locked into a similar trajectory. This is from 2008 and you could argue that it was the first game after we'd hit rock bottom. We'd just gone out of the Cup to Torquay, which resulted in Darren Patterson being relegated. Jim Smith was in charge for this one, which was live on Setanta, and therefore probably played at 3am on a Tuesday morning or something. Shortly afterwards we recruited Chris Wilder and the revival was on.

From the blog

In 2012 we went to Mansfield with James Constable sitting on 99 goals. He went on to score his 100th goal; a bona fide modern Oxford legend.
"You hope, of course, that perhaps Gary Twigg can be the next John Aldridge, or Alex Fisher the next Paul Powell. I've lost count of the number of wingers I hoped would turn out to be the next Joey Beauchamp. 
Yes, Courtney Pitt, you failed me."
Read on.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Notts County wrap - Oxford United 3 Notts County 1

There’s a benign quality about early season mid-week football. Unlike later in the season, the mood is 90% blind optimism, 10% grim pragmatism. There’s a freshness, everyone looks a bit more tanned and relaxed, like they’re enjoying rather than fighting life. The crowd has a few more children who are still on their holidays, one or two casuals curious as to what happens in these parts, and even the odd foreign student wanting the experience of watching English football.

We’ve had many good nights like these; beating Bristol Rovers and Bournemouth in the League Cup, Swindon in the JPT, league wins over St Albans and Cambridge. Nights where all is right with the world.

This was like that, but a bit more so. We looked comfortable enough from the word go, knocking the ball between midfield and attack, little flicks and back heels. But with the ball running true and the weather so mild, we needed pace and creativity. Nobody was giving us the urgency to get on and win the game. Pat Hoban is a battering ram and we may still need him in the trenches in the coming months, but this wasn't his kind of game.

County looked OK, but lacked the anger of a club scorned by their relegation, one that wants to dominate teams and win back their rightful place in a higher division. Beyond one brilliant set-piece - and their goal - they looked passive.

The injection of pace and enthusiasm that the game needed came from Callum O'Dowda. It's rare that you see a player materially turn a game on its head the moment he comes on. Not just his goal, but the way he went about his work. That set the tone for others to follow.

What resulted after was easily Michael Appleton's best performance at home, and one of the best we've seen since we came back into the League. Some games - cup games, derbies - generate their own energy, Chris Wilder was a master at channelling that. But this was one of those games which could have generated a marshmallow atmosphere. Historically, we have become consumed in this ennui, but this was very different. A victory not of angst and relief, but a pure ode to joy.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Coming up: Notts County

The drop

There are typically two reactions to relegation; the first is the development of a sense of entitlement to return from where you've dropped. A few good results early in the season and it's easy to get into a rhythm that drives you to a successful season. We've seen this with teams like Chesterfield, Shrewsbury and Swindon in recent years. The other is the sudden panic that 'the drop' doesn't actually mean 'to the bottom' and that there is much further to fall. Bristol Rovers, Carlisle, Portsmouth and Hartlepool have all experienced that.

Early season form is an important factor in determining which type of team you'll be. It's easy to become optimistic during close season and believe that you're about to face a wad of inferior teams. But the differences between top and bottom are far smaller than you expect. County are probably still working out how things are; their opening win over Stevenage will have given them confidence, but their defeat to new derby bedfellows Mansfield will have been a shock on a number of levels. It's a bit like our constant denial that Wycombe isn't a derby; to some extent to admit it is to admit how far we've fallen. To be beaten at home by them is a deeper pain still.

So this is important for a number of reasons. We need a win, of course. We also need to give a potential promotion rival a bloody nose to knock them off of their stride before they get into it. 

Old game of the day

We haven't played County for nine years, so not a lot to choose from in the archive. I'm going with this from 1994, a time that football kit design forgot. This was our last game of the season and the day we went down after a decade in the top two divisions. Mathematically it was still possible to stay up, but nobody in their right mind relies on maths.

But, it was also notable for a moment of Joey Beauchamp magic in his last game before moving to the Premier League where he would go on to play for England and win the World Cu... oh.