Thursday, August 27, 2015

Sheffield Wednesday wrap

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

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.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Luton wrap - Luton Town 2 Oxford United 2

‘We’d have lost that last year’ one person inevitably said after the big comeback draw against Luton. It’s one of those phrases that has seeped into the lexicon in recent years. 

We’d have lost that most years, I’d wager. It was as freaky as it was welcome. Jerome Sale and Nathan Cooper rightly highlighted the fact that Oxford and Luton share many common traits. We’ve both been at the top and the bottom, we both think we deserve more, we both think that there are other forces at work that prevent us from progressing. We’re both fragile, and that’s key because while others have exploited our own mental fragility in the past, this time it was our turn to be the beneficiary. When Kemar Roofe drilled in the first goal, it stuck the knife in and as Dave Brailsford said of Chris Froome's Tour de France win - once you've stuck the knife in, you have to keep twisting. 

Sale and Cooper also got it right when they said that if you win at places like Luton, then you should be fighting for the title, if you draw; promotion should be your goal. ‘Should’ is the operative here. This season should be about promotion not just the isolated ‘buzz’ of freaks and one-offs. We’ve had a few of those in recent years and they become a vague memory by the time we hit May and are soft pedalling our way into the summer.   

What it does do is it helps paint a picture of a type of success; that if our backs are against the wall, then there’s no reason to give up. That’s worth having in our locker for when things hairy. It needs to be applied properly - we don’t want to get ourselves in that position in the first place; so it’s an escape pod only to be used in emergencies. Let's not forget that even going into injury time, the most likely outcome was a defeat. In most cases in the future, that's what we'll get; nothing. 

And this is not the product of magic, spirit or any of that nonsense, it's hard work, application, good tactics and intelligent play. One thing that Gary Neville said about Manchester United’s fabled ability to score last minute goals was that where most teams lose their heads when chasing a game, their key was to focus on creating one really high quality chance. Underpinning their mythical status as comeback kings was the application of high quality football. Or, if you like, doing what they should always be doing.

I wasn’t expecting us to get much out of Luton, so the point is a good one, but in the context of promotion it claws back one of the two dropped against Crawley. If that sounds downbeat, it’s not meant to be, but promotion is about being relentlessly effective for a long time. Historically, we've been pretty bad at that. But, that’s the real objective.

Coming up: Luton Town

Next up is Luton Town, according to the pre-season predictions, this one could be an early sharpener for the promotion race.

We've got plenty of history with this lot, being the only fixture in the country to have been played in each of the top five divisions in the country. Here's a frankly mental 7-4 defeat from 1988.

Oh, and if you think Luton's pitch looks like a carpet, that's because it is.

From the blog archive

It's 2010 and our season has started like a rocket. Title favourites, Luton, arrive at the Kassam for a clash of the biggest beasts on the Conference scene. 10,000 fans turn up for a game which isn't all-ticket. The place is mayhem.
"Admist the melee and noise the carrier took centre stage. He raised his right arm and gestured to the gawdy lights of the bazaar of restaurants, cinemas and bowling alleys. The crowd were still." 
Read on.