Sunday, 23 September 2012

Oxford Slip to Fifth Consecutive Defeat

Oxford United are in turmoil. Saturday's defeat to Bradford City saw United slip to their fifth consecutive league defeat. The feel-good factor that surrounded the club at the beginning of the season has been replaced by a  gloomy pessimism. Having been strongly linked with the vacant managerial job at Coventry City only last month, Chris Wilder is now fighting to save his job at the club. At the end of the Bradford game, a chorus of chants from the East Stand called for Wilder's head. How quickly football can change.

While a crippling injury list has hindered Oxford, supporters are growing increasingly frustrated at Wilder's inability to improvise. Wilder favours a 4-3-3 formation and this has famously worked wonders for United in the past, but on Saturday it was clearly a mistake to set out his team in such a fashion. The home side only had two fully fit central midfielders at their disposal on Saturday, and so Wilder ought to have played a 4-4-2. Instead, he rigidly stuck to his trusted formation and elected to play Tony Capaldi, a left-back, in the midfield three. Unfortunately for Wilder, the gamble did not pay off.

United's confidence is rock bottom. With senior players such as James Constable and Simon Heslop performing below-par, Oxford are in danger of becoming embroiled in a relegation scrap. This cannot be allowed to happen.

Wilder has been a terrific servant for Oxford, and fans will forever be indebted to the Yorkshireman for rescuing the U's from the wilderness of the Blue Square Premier League. But Wilder made costly decisions at the latter stages of the last year's campaign that cost Oxford a play-off place and is struggling to arrest an alarming dip in performances this time round. Another dismal showing away at Rotherham this weekend could see the writing on the wall for Wilder.

Thursday, 6 September 2012

Late Drama as Oxford Defeat Arch-Rivals

In a typically vociferous atmosphere at the Kassam Stadium last night, Oxford United defeated their arch-rivals Swindon Town for the fourth successive time. Substitute Alfie Potter’s dramatic late strike was enough to separate the two sides and ensure that bragging rights remain firmly in Oxford’s quarter.

In a similar vein to last year’s encounters, United spent much of the game on the back foot. With a growing injury list to contend with, manager Chris Wilder was forced to hand a debut to powerhouse Daniel Boateng in the three man midfield. This meant Oxford sacrificed their customary fluid style of football for a more robust and physical approach. It was a decision that paid off as a formidable Oxford outfit stood firm against Paolo Di Canio’s ever-dangerous League 2 champions.

As with any cup game against superior opponents, victory tends to come with an element of fortune, and this match proved no different. Ten minutes into the encounter, the graceful Giles Coke was presented with a clear opening after a neat one-two, but thrashed wildly at the attempt. Shortly afterwards, Swindon’s veteran centre-half Darren Ward failed to convert his side’s bets chance with a free header from a Swindon corner. For all Swindon’s dominance though, Oxford had defended stoically and could even have led at the break after the terrific Adam Chapman went close with a free-kick.

The second half saw an escalation in the ferocity of the atmosphere, as Oxford’s devoted supporters hurled smoke bombs into ‘no man’s land’ (the cordoned off area separating the two sets of supporters). This act startled Swindon’s surprisingly muted fans, and on the pitch Oxford were also beginning to assert their authority on proceedings. The industrious Boateng was replaced by in-form and exciting talent, Potter, who immediately embarked on one of his trademark mazy runs at the suspect Swindon defence. With Oxford in the ascendancy, on-loan Brighton starlet, Jake Forster-Caskey stung the fingertips of Wes Fotheringham, whom Di Canio had replaced after 22 minutes in their previous game.

Despite Oxford’s late flourish, the match looked certain to end in a deadlock with a dreaded penalty shoot-out the necessary outcome to decide this most fiercely contested cup game.
But with two minutes left on the clock, a calamitous mix-up between Swindon’s central defensive pairing saw James Constable bearing down on the Swindon goal. United’s talisman, who rejected the overtures of Swindon in January this year, kept his composure and squared the ball to Potter to slide into the empty net.

What followed, was surely the most manic celebrations ever witnessed in the first round of the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy.


Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Bye Bye Wilder?

It will be interesting to gauge Chris Wilder's reaction in tonight's derby match against Swindon Town. With speculation linking the Oxford boss to the vacant managerial role at Coventry City, a victory over Oxford's bitter rivals could be the perfect way for Wilder to bow out.

Expect the fans to cheer Wilder's name with gusto this evening. After four impressive years at the club, including the memorable play-off victory in 2010, Wilder has established himself as a popular and well-respected figure at Oxford. His tenure has brought much-needed stability to the club, bringing an end to the managerial merry-go-round that existed before.

At such an early stage of the season, it would be a great shame to see Wilder leave.

Wednesday, 29 August 2012

League Cup Dream Over

So Oxford United failed to reach the 3rd Round of the League Cup after a 3-0 defeat to a superior Leeds United side, but at least I made it into the Oxford Mail! Here is the link to an article from the paper showing my friends and I displaying our support for the injured Michael Duberry.

Every cloud...

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Oxford Enjoy Best Start in Eighteen Years

So far, so good for Oxford United. After a comprehensive victory away at Bristol Rovers to open their league campaign, the U’s have since recorded back-to-back home wins. It is Oxford’s best start to a season in eighteen years and Chris Wilder’s side currently sit at the top of League 2. With two glamorous cup ties in the shape of Leeds United, in the Capital One Cup, and fierce rivals, Swindon Town, in the unnecessary Johnstone’s Paint Trophy, a sense of optimism and excitement is already palpable round the Kassam Stadium.

Oxford’s early success can be put down to Wilder’s decision to retain the core of his team, as well as the six-figure investment into strength and conditioning introduced in the Summer, which was modelled on the approach of Rugby League outfit, Wigan Warriors (also owned by Oxford chairman, Ian Lenagan).

United’s downfall last season was largely the result of crucial players suffering injuries at the latter stages of the season. With a thin squad to choose from, Wilder panicked and brought in a string of hapless loanees who had, unsurprisingly, been made surplus to requirements at their parent clubs. With a greater onus on strength and conditioning, Oxford seem intent on preventing such a scenario from recurring. Moreover, the new approach is already paying dividends as Oxford recovered from a penalty shoot-out victory (that lasted 120 minutes) against League One Bournemouth to convincingly defeat Bristol Rovers four days later. Indeed, a bullish Oxford have only conceded one goal thus far, and that from a direct free kick.

Furthermore, as teams such as Bristol Rovers, with their radically revamped squads take time to bed together, Oxford already have the spine of the team and a strong spirit in place. Wilder elected to retain faith in a squad that has the potential to achieve promotion, while adding only a handful of players with proven quality. With the likes of Tom Craddock and Alfie Potter rejuvenated after a lengthy spell on the sidelines, there is no reason why Oxford cannot build on their bright start.

A giant killing over Neil Warnock’s Leeds United tonight will increase the optimistic fervour at the Kassam to new heights. Bring it on.

Monday, 11 June 2012

Wilder Under Pressure To Deliver

A seasont that promised so much ended in bitter disappointment for Oxford United. Despite an impressive start to the season and a memorable derby victory over Swindon Town, a late slump in form cost United a place in the play-offs. Chris Wilder will now go into new season under intense pressure to improve on the 9th place finish.

Following the spineless 3-0 defeat to Port Vale in the last game of the campaign, Wider cursed United’s crippling injury list as the cause of the downward spiral. While this certainly played a part, Wilder cannot escape the line of fire. It was his decision to bring in a string of hapless loan signings, including the sulky and arrogant Dean Morgan that did more to hinder, rather than bolster Oxford’s promotion push. Morgan’s ‘sit-in’ Gillingham’s penalty area mid-way through a turgid goalless draw was the icing on the cake for the majority of the Oxford supporters and they let their frustrations out on the strutting winger. Wilder ought to have taken this as a sign; the line-up he had persisted with the previous month was clearly not working. The loan signings did not possess the creative spark or quality to carry Oxford out of the division. However, Wilder stuck to his guns and Oxford inevitably bowed out with a whimper. The Kassam Stadium will play host to League 2 football once again next season.

For Wilder, the ‘rebuilding’ process begins once more. Mercifully, Oxford’s manager decided against making Morgan and Cristian Montano’s loan signings permanent. Scott Rendell, for all his effort and energy, is not the man to fire United to promotion glory and Oxford should aim higher than the Wycombe man. James Constable continues to be linked with a move away from the Kassam and after a testing campaign, United must decide whether to keep faith with their talisman or not. If Constable remains at Oxford, Wilder has to be prepared to build his team around the bulldozing striker, as ‘Beano’ is clearly ineffectual from the bench. With or without Constable, Oxford desperately require a goal-scoring centre-forward. Marc Richards, the Port Vale striker, fitted the bill perfectly, but elected to join relegated Chesterfield and instead Oxford snapped up his Vale team-mate, Sean Rigg. Wilder must make this his Summer priority.

Aside from this, Oxford have to work Peter Leven into a leaner physical shape, as he oozes a grace and class rarely seen at the Kassam. His goal from the half-way line at home to Port Vale was a truly majestic strike. However, towards the latter stages of the season, Leven was too immobile and sluggish to dictate proceedings. A fit Leven could be the secret to a successful future campaign for Oxford.
One piece of encouraging news for Oxford was Michael Duberry’s decision to remain with the club for a further season. The influence and experience of ‘Dubes’ shored up United’s defence last season and the serial Tweeter will certainly play an invaluable role in next season’s campaign.

After two successive seasons of narrowly missing out on the play-offs, one hopes that Wilder can build on the lessons learnt to steer Oxford to promotion glory. If not, it could be a case of three strikes and out for the Oxford boss.

Sunday, 22 April 2012

Oxford Drop Out of Play-Offs

In the season defining fortnight, Oxford United dropped out of the play-off places after extending their winless streak to an alarming five games. Unfortunately, manager Chris Wilder must take a share of the blame for his refusal to change a front three that have been ineffectual and in the case of sulky Dean Morgan, totally uncommitted to the promotion push that the supporters so desire. The on-loan Chesterfield winger’s two minute ‘sit-in’ in the penalty area during the Gillingham game particularly incensed the United faithful. Morgan may have taken a knock but after six games of pent-up frustration watching the arrogant loanee strut around the Kassam turf, this was the final straw for the Oxford fans and they let their feelings knows, booing Morgan as Wilder was finally forced to substitute his beloved loanee. It defies belief that Oxford entered the crucial stage of the season reliant on such a hapless trio. Aside Morgan’s obvious failings, Cristian Montano, on loan from West Ham, lacks composure. A prime example of this flaw came in the entertaining 2-2 draw with Torquay when, at 2-1 to Oxford, he over-hit the simplest of passes to the completely unmarked Asa Hall in the Torquay penalty area. Oxford were left to rue this chance as Torquay came back to steal a point in stoppage time. While Scott Rendell has been the pick of the trio and has tirelessly led the front line in recent weeks, he is not the man to fire Oxford to promotion glory. With James Constable lacking match sharpness and confidence due to Wilder’s inexplicable reason to drop him to the bench, United have been left with a chronic lack of firepower. JP Pitman impressed in January but since picking up an injury, Wilder has completely overlooked the American and he did not even merit a place on the substitutes bench against Plymouth. He seems destined for the exit this summer and one can only hope that he does not replicate the success of Jack Midson, who looks set to finish this season as the division’s leading scorer.

In fairness to Wilder, Oxford deserved the three points against promotion hopefuls Torquay United on Easter Monday. In an enthralling contest, Oxford conceded an early goal after a calamitous mistake from the shaky Harry Worley before staging an inspired comeback. After squandering a hatful of chances, Adam Chapman then scored a remarkable goal direct from a corner. Roared on by the Oxford Mail Stand, the home side continued to pile on the pressure and eventually their dominance relented when a precise Damian Batt cross was headed home by Montano. Oxford ought to have doubled their advantage and in the closing stages Morgan was gifted the golden opportunity to win over his doubters but he blazed the chance over. Much like the Northampton game, Oxford were dealt a sucker-punch when Ryan Clarke failed to keep out Tom Atieno’s last-gasp effort.

Fortunately Oxford had the chance to rectify this result at home to Gillingham five days later. The U’s failed to hit the heights of the Torquay match and were reliant on Liam Davis for two goal-saving blocks. Despite this, Oxford came the closest to scoring with the impressive Asa Hall forcing a great save out of the highly-rated Gillingham keeper, Paolo Gazzaniga and then having a left foot volley headed off the line by Matt Fish. In the last minute, Oxford’s lively substitute Oli Johnson went down in the area and the whole crowd went up screaming for a penalty. The referee blew his whistle and the Oxford fans roared with delight. Unfortunately those cheers quickly turned to groans as the referee proceeded to award Gillingham a free-kick and rightfully caution Johnson for diving. Johnson’s tumble had been the last throw of the dice on another bitterly frustrating afternoon. Still, Macclesfield’s late equaliser against Crewe meant that Oxford somehow remained in a play-off place.

Oxford’s next match was a tricky test away at relegation strugglers Plymouth Argyle, who Oxford had thrashed 5-1 earlier in the season. Having relied on results going their way the last few weeks, Oxford now needed to concentrate on their own performance and record a much-needed victory. Much like the Torquay game though, Oxford went behind inside five minutes after Robbie Williams curled home a well-placed free-kick. During their recent slump, few United players have covered themselves in glory, but Asa Hall has stood out and turned in a number of excellent performances. His goal scoring record has also been impressive and he added to his tally here, firing a 30 yard wonder strike past the helpless Plymouth keeper. That was how it finished, meaning that Plymouth had escaped the dreaded drop.

With Crewe finally capitalising on Oxford’s miserable run of form, United slipped outside the play-off places for the first time since January. Crewe have a tough fixture away at Torquay next week, but Oxford have a daunting task of their own, at home to Southend United. Oxford must now deliver or else a season that promised so much will come to a juddering halt. If that happens, Wilder will face the ire of the Oxford fans on Saturday.

Saturday, 7 April 2012

Late Goal Leaves Oxford Play-Off Dreams In Doubt

Oxford United lost ground on their play-off rivals with a disastrous showing at Sixfields on Good Friday. The results leaves the U’s in seventh place, with only two points separating them and Crewe Alexandra in eighth. The ever-dangerous Gillingham, the remaining side competing for a top seven finish lie a mere three points adrift of Oxford. The Kent outfit visit the Kassam next week in a pivotal promotion clash.

Oxford must raise their before then and have the even more pressing matter of high-flying and promotion bound Torquay United on Easter Monday. Against Northampton last night, Oxford were frustratingly disappointing and crashed to a potentially fatal 2-1 defeat. It was an absorbing contest which saw the home side score in both the first and final thirty seconds of the game, Peter Leven stretched off with a serious leg injury, Adam Chapman miss a penalty, Luke Guttridge only booked for a blatant stamp on Liam Davis and Michael Duberry dismissed for two yellow cards.

Once more, Chris Wilder must take a fair shame of the blame. After arguably the worst performance of the season at home to Morecambe last week, he desperately needed to shake up a rudderless side short of both confidence and quality. However, Wilder only elected to restore Duberry to the heart of the defence in place of Andy Whing, after the former Chelsea man had overcome a niggling injury. This was a costly error of judgement by Wilder and it proved decisive as, inside sixty seconds, Guttridge scampered onto a long ball from the kick off to curl a sumptuous shot into the top corner of Ryan Clarke’s net. This early goal threw the away side off guard and they resorted to the days of Ian Atkins with long balls pumped into the vague direction of lone striker Scott Rendell. The Cobblers looked the more threatening, particularly off set-pieces with the likes of Clarke Carlisle and Ben Tozer to contend with in the box. Down the left flank, Michael Jacobs, the tricky Northampton winger was giving Damian Batt a torrid time and Oxford had to rely on the steady Clarke in goal to prevent Northampton doubling their lead.

Oxford’s rhythm was then further disrupted by a shocking injury to playmaker Leven after a physical, but fair, challenge from Toni Silva. The committed utility player, Andy Whing, was sent on in place of Leven, suggesting that Oxford would now have to scrap for a victory on a night that was quickly turning into a nightmare. To be fair, Whing’s calm persona steadied the rattled away team and freed up the energetic Chapman to burst forward where possible. One such run saw Chapman bundled over in the penalty area, but Oxford appeals for a penalty were justifiably waved away by referee Mark Brown. The end of the half saw United finish the stronger, with the uncultured Cristian Montano forcing a save from American keeper Neal Kitson.

United’s late flurry in the first half was carried into the second period, as Oxford began to impose themselves under the Sixfields floodlights. The 1,631 travelling fans also started to sense an Oxford revival. This, coupled with the realisation of the bearing of this result on Oxford’s season led to a more intense atmosphere, as United’s passionate supporters roared on the re-invigorated boys in yellow.

With the vociferous backing behind them, Oxford carved out their best chance of the match when Montano’s cross was met by the onrushing Duberry, who could only direct his header straight at Kitson. But Oxford were on a roll now. Two minutes later, a deft touch by Rendell fell into the path of Montano, who pinged a shot into the corner of the goal to send the sold-out away contingent into delirium.

Oxford and the much-maligned Montano were growing in confidence and ought to have then taken the lead when Chapman was upended in the box after Montano’s cheeky back-heel. Having won the spot-kick, Chapman, a man to whom the cliché ‘wears his heart on his sleeve’ is fitting, was intent on taking it. However, he tamely fired the resulting penalty down the throat of Kitson who palmed the ball to safety.

At this crucial stage of the season or ‘squeaky bum time’ as Sir Alex Ferguson coined it, incidents such as this can define one’s season. Unfortunately, the next turning point in the enthralling encounter also went against Oxford when referee Brown only cautioned Guttridge for a cowardly stamp on ex-Cobbler Davis.

Despite these setbacks though, United continued to search for a winner as the now-incensed and fired up away support urged Oxford on. Dean Morgan, the on-loan Chesterfield winger came over to incite even more passion amongst the travelling fans, yet one couldn’t help wish that he concentrated more on his anonymous showing on the pitch.

With time running out, Oxford fashioned two opportunities. The first fell to substitute and talisman James Constable, but with the striker forced to sit on the bench and thus drained of all confidence, the ball got stuck awkwardly under his feet as he bore down on the Northampton goal. Then, a glorious Chapman cross was headed over by Montano.

As is often the case, United were left to rue these missed chances as Northampton hit them on the counter-attack when Ben Williams arrowed a fizzing shot to the left of Clarke. A dramatic end to a thrilling second half and a sucker-blow to Oxford’s promotion ambitions. To compound the misery, Duberry was then given his marching orders by the referee after he hurtled into a tackle while already on a booking.

As the hardy United faithful poured out of Sixfields, the gleeful Northampton fans chanted ‘we’ll see you all next year.’ No one could quite muster the energy to disagree.

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Morecambe Deny Oxford Automatic Promotion Dream

A woeful performance at home to Morecambe on Saturday saw Oxford United miss out on a golden opportunity to cement their position in the play-offs.

Buoyed by an impressive four-match unbeaten record, which included a battling point away at play-off rivals Cheltenham Town and an emphatic 2-0 victory at Accrington Stanley’s Crown Ground, Oxford now had ambitions on a top three finish. However, the defeat to Morecambe put an abrupt end to such wishful thinking and left United precariously positioned in the play-offs once more, only three points ahead of Crewe Alexandra outside the much-coveted top seven.

That such a desperate showing should come at a pivotal moment of the season is both surprising and worrying. Morecambe are too many points adrift to mount a late play-off charge, yet throughout the encounter the Lancashire side were the hungrier, more determined and crucially, more clinical. Oxford looked lethargic and sluggish, while their customary slick passing was alarmingly wayward.

In fairness to Oxford, Morecambe’s opener, inside three minutes, came with an element of good fortune. An aimless shot from Danny Carlton, the Morecambe right-back flew in off the head of Craig Curran. Determined to make immediate amends, the U’s fashioned a chance that eventually fell to Scott Rendell to bundle home. At this stage, with the match barely five minutes underway, the crowd sensed a home victory. Instead of capitalising on Rendell’s equaliser though, United reacted into their shell, seemingly satisfied to soak up Morecambe pressure.

A large portion of the blame for such a disappointing defeat must be attributed to manager Chris Wilder. His team selection and substitutions were baffling. In particular, his decision to firstly bring in Deane Morgan and Cristian Montano on loan and then to hand them both a starting berth defied belief. Morgan was arrogantly lazy, prancing around the Kassam turf as if he were above this League 2 malarkey. Sorry to say Mr Morgan, you are not. Worse still was Montano. Released earlier in the season by Paolo Di Canio after four wretched performances for Swindon, he was caught in possession on almost every occasion he came away with the ball. As such, any United attack subsequently fizzled out due to the hapless pair of loanees on the wings.

Then, in the second half, Wilder replaced arguably Oxford’s most committed performer, Adam Chapman, for James Constable. Two things were wrong with this change: first, Chapman should have remained on the pitch. Second, Constable ought to have played from the start. This meant that Oxford switched from a 4-3-3 to a 4-4-2 formation which left the home side even more exposed in the wide areas. Fifteen minutes later, Wilder finally ripped off the agricultural Montano for Mark Wilson, who then took up Chapman’s position albeit with less swagger and influence, leaving the United fans confused as to why Chapman had ever been replaced in the first instance.

With United lacking direction, ideas and leadership, Morecambe’s pressure eventually relented when the superb Lewis Alassandra whipped in a corner than was headed home by veteran Stuart Drummond ten minutes from the end. In the late stages, Oxford’s man of the match, Asa Hall, almost stole a point when his stinging left foot drive was saved by Barry Roche, but this would have flattered the below-par home side.

This was a bitterly frustrating afternoon that put a juddering halt to United’s promotion push. On the bright, Oxford have JP Pittman, Oli Johnson and Michael Duberry are all back in contention for Good Friday’s must-win game away at a resurgent Northampton Town.

Sunday, 18 March 2012

Depleted Oxford Remain in Play-Off Contention

Following the euphoria of the Swindon match, Oxford United faced two testing away trips in quick succession. Up first were Shrewsbury Town, a side unbeaten at home this season. With Oxford having to cope with a mounting injury crisis, as well as the suspension of James Constable, the size of the task was immense.

Still, confidence and morale were high after the gripping and emotional victory at the weekend and United carried on where they left off at the Greenhous Meadow with inspired loan signing Lee Holmes netting inside the first minute. Minutes before the break, Holmes bagged his second with a classy chip over Chris Neal to double Oxford’s lead. United looked set to end Shrewsbury’s proud home record and seal a perfect four days, but a spirited Shrewsbury fightback spoiled the Oxford party. The home side drew level on 54 minutes through Mark Wright, after Oxford failed to deal with a Marvin Morgan cross. However, this did not lead to an Oxford capitulation and the depleted side dug deep in dogged fashion, determined to protect their unlikely lead. It required a stoppage time 35-yard bullet from Matt Richards to finally out-do the valiant away team, which left Shrewsbury in automatic promotion contention and the U’s scrapping for the final play-off spot.

United’s next outing was at Valley Parade, home of Bradford City, where Oxford had been thrashed 5-0 last season. Unfortunately, United failed to end their Valley Parade hoodoo, losing 2-1 to the struggling Yorkshire side. A reckless challenge from Damian Batt before the break saw Oxford reduced to ten men, leaving the U’s facing an uphill task. Matters were made worse in the second half when Andy Whing scythed down Marcel Seip in the box and former Premier League player Craig Fagan converted the resulting spot-kick. Soon after, James Hanson made it 2-0 with a header after a Bradford counter-attack. Thankfully, Oxford showed more resilience than the previous season and even pulled a goal back through Asa Hal. A Gillingham home defeat to Crewe Alexandra meant that Oxford fortuitously kept their play-off position, but Chris Wilder’s men can ill afford such defeats if they are to remain in the top seven.

After two matches on the road, Oxford faced Andy Scott’s Rotherham United at the weekend, who had defeated the Yellows on the opening day of the season at their temporary ground. Oxford had suffered a blow during the week following the news that the impressive winger Lee Holmes had chosen to join arch-rivals, Swindon Town, on loan until the end of the season in place of the U’s. To compensate for this, manager Wilder had brought in Cristian Montano from West Ham, who had incidentally played for Swindon on loan earlier in the season. He had already signed Dean Morgan on a month’s loan from Chesterfield to cope with United’s crippling injury list. The loss of Holmes was a sore blow, but it was softened by the return of the creative genius of Peter Leven to United’s starting line-up against Rotherham. The Scot was quick to make an impressive in his first game back, setting up Scott Rendell for Oxford’s first goal. Asa Hall then doubled United’s advantage five minutes later for his second goal in as many games. With ten minutes remaining, Oxford gave their fans a customary nervous finish after Lewis Grabban’s penalty. The Merry Millers almost stole a point at the end when Michael Duberry cleared the ball off his line, but Oxford managed to hold out for a crucial victory. United now have ten games remaining in what will be a grandstand finish to a compelling season.

Saturday, 3 March 2012

Oxford Defy Doubters To Defeat Arch-Rivals

In an exhilarating game at the Kassam Stadium, Oxford United completed the double over their arch rivals and ended their ten match winning streak in the process. A manic five minute spell in the first half that saw James Constable sent off for an elbow on Joe Devera was then followed by two quick-fire Oxford goals courtesy of Asa Hall and Oli Johnson.

In spring-like conditions, Oxford United fans arrived early at the ground ahead of the midday kick-off. The Priory Pub was packed with excited, albeit slightly apprehensive Oxford supporters. With Swindon storming the division, fans feared that this much-awaited derby day could be the last for the foreseeable future. As such, there was an even greater desire to mark the day with an especially vociferous and memorable atmosphere.

Once inside the stadium, the Oxford Mail stand was absolutely rocking, urged on by Peter Rhoades-Brown on the pitch. Amid the deafening noise, the two sides emerged from the tunnel. With Jake Wright injured, veteran defender Michael Duberry led an under-strength United side out against a Swindon team sky-high on confidence. Chris Wilder had plumbed for a 4-4-2 formation, with Anthony Tonkin replacing Liam Davis at left-back, presumably to combat the threat of Matt Ritchie. Andy Whing returned to centre-half in place of Wright, meaning a recall to the starting eleven for Asa Hall, who partnered Mark Wilson in centre midfield. Lee Homes and Oli Johnson provided United’s width, while Scott Rendell and James Constable led Oxford’s front line.

Straight away, it was clear why Swindon were top of the league; their passing, movement and speed was vastly superior to the majority of teams who take to the Kassam. Only two minutes into the encounter, the Robins ought to have taken the lead when Luke Rooney scuffed his shot wide of the post. Two minutes later, disaster struck for Oxford. A clipped ball was lifted into the path of Constable, who was being closely marshalled by Swindon defender, Devera. Fired up by the bubbling atmosphere, Constable turned and swung his elbow into Devera’s chest. In Italian style, the Swindon players rushed to swarm referee Graham Salisbury, who reached to his back pocket before brandishing the red card. The Swindon fans went beserk, delighted to see that the man who had rejected their club’s overtures would play no further part in the contest.

This decision ought to have rocked Oxford, yet it was the away side that went into their shell. Minutes after Constable’s dismissal, United were awarded a free kick. With set-piece specialist Peter Leven absent through injury, Lee Holmes whipped in a dangerous ball that Hall poked into the Swindon net. The Oxford fans were sent into a delirious state of ecstasy, jumping round the stand kissing and grabbing strangers in gleeful delight. A minute later and it became even more extraordinary. Holmes tore past Swindon skipper Paul Caddis down the left wing and teed up the onrushing Johnson with a sumptuous cross, who placed the ball past the helpless Wes Foderingham in the Swindon goal. The delight of the first goal had been replaced by an incredulous amazement. Out of nowhere, the ten men of Oxford had raced into a two-goal lead. It was astonishing stuff and we all needed a moment to reflect and take it all in.

However, Swindon responded instantaneously with the hugely impressive Richie testing the ever-reliable Ryan Clarke with a sweetly struck free kick. Ritchie then almost single-handedly got the Robins back in the contest with a sublime twenty-five yard drive that crashed against the post. Thankfully, Swindon’s luck was out, as United fought valiantly to protect their lead into half-time. There was even a sentimental moment for Oxford when Adam Chapman replaced Mark Wilson who hobbled off. This was Chapman’s first real return to the United set-up since his heroic performance at Wembley in May 2010. Chapman had famously cried on the pitch after Oxford had won promotion back to the Football League. His passion and pride gave United much-needed impetus during the remainder of the epic encounter. In the last significant moment of the half, Ritchie was almost sent-off for pushing the Oxford ball-boy, after he refused to return the ball to Swindon. Eventually referee Salisbury brought an end to what had been an exhausting and gripping first half.

In the second half, ten-men Oxford had to display dogged fighting spirit to defy the Swindon onslaught. In defence, Duberry and Whing threw their bodies courageously at everything, while Tonkin was managing to keep the lively Ritchie at bay. Up front, Rendell worked tirelessly to pressure Swindon’s back four, while Chapman and Hall in the middle of the pitch looked calm in possession and continuously harried Swindon’s playmakers outside the box. Still, Swindon had a number of opportunities to pull one back. Their best chance fell on 55 minutes, when an inswinging corner was met by Paul Benson ten yards out. The in-form striker ought to have scored his ninth goal of the season, but could only send his header comfortably into the hands of Clarke. As time went on, Swindon looked increasingly short of ideas and the noise levels inside the Kassam rose once more. With ten minutes remaining, the entire Oxford contingent in the ground were on the feet urging the players over the finishing line. The Swindon fans, who had been crowing before kick-off, had gone deathly silent in the corner of the North Stand. In the final minutes, Swindon substitute Billy Bodin had a golden chance to score, yet his shot was blocked by the brave frame of Whing. That was to be Swindon’s last chance as referee Salisbury blew for full time.

This result will not half Swindon’s promotion drive. Sadly, the Robins are destined for an instant return to League 1. Perhaps this is why Swindon boss Paolo Di Canio took to the pitch at the end to wave his Swindon scarf manically at the away end. Whatever happens though, local bragging rights belong firmly to Oxford United, and that, is hugely satisfying.

Friday, 2 March 2012

Swindon Town Preview

Oxford United will face Swindon Town in a league match tomorrow for the first time at the Kassam Stadium. Their previous meeting at the ground was an FA Cup 2nd round tie in 2002. It is fair to say that United fans have been eagerly awaiting this fixture since it was announced back in June last year. With the game sold out months ago, it should be a rippling and vociferous atmosphere. The away fixture, which Oxford won under the blazing August sunshine, was a tremendous event. The intensity, suspense and excitement that come with a derby game set them apart from any ordinary fixture.

Moreover, Oxford’s chief rivals are absolutely flying. Town impressed in the encounter earlier in the season, playing some attractive and intricate football. In truth, the U’s rode their luck and were fortunate to win that game. Swindon suffered a blip after the derby game, with charismatic manager Paolo Di Canio having an on-field altercation with former loan striker Leon Clarke during a league cup game against Southampton. Critics of the enigmatic Italian wrote that the impassioned Di Canio was not cut out for the strains and demands of management. However, Di Canio gradually proved his doubters wrong as he began to instil his winning mentality on his side. Swindon started to rise up the League 2 table, first into the play-offs and then into the automatic places. Town currently sit at the top of the pile, having recently smashed a club record by winning ten league matches on the trot. With thirteen games remaining, Swindon seemed destined for an instant return to League 1. Di Canio’s side have enjoyed cup success too, defeating Premiership Wigan Athletic in the FA Cup 3rd Round and reaching the final of the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy at Wembley.

As such, Swindon will approach the game full of confidence. Di Canio has dubbed the game bigger than the Lazio v Roma derby and so there is no doubt that he will have his players fired up and mentally prepared for the contest. Oxford, on the other hand, are stuttering towards the finish line, desperately trying to keep within touching distance of the in-form play-off pack. Manager Chris Wilder is frantically attempting to create a stable side, having bought in his customary handful of loanees during the January transfer window (including Mehdi Kerrouche from Swindon). Thus far these loan signings have proved more of a hindrance than a help to Oxford’s promotion charge. Worse still, United’s most talented player and creative spark, Peter Leven, has been ruled out of the match, while skipper Jake Wright is also a doubt.

As such, Oxford will have to rely on their battle-hardy endeavour to defeat a Swindon side that oozes class, skill and invention. James Constable, the man Di Canio encouraged to sign for Swindon in January, must be at his sharpest and most prolific if United are to complete an improbable double over their fiercest rivals.

Whatever the outcome, it should be a fantastic advert for League 2 football.

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Dour Spectacle at the Mem

In an abysmal game on a shocking pitch, Bristol Rovers held Oxford to a goalless draw at the Memorial Stadium on Saturday afternoon. United will feel frustrated not to have picked up all three points given how poorly the Pirates performed. Despite parting ways with Paul Buckle two months ago, Rovers still look drastically short of confidence and quality under new manager Mark McGhee. The boggy pitch was, quite frankly, an embarrassment and prevented Oxford from playing their intricate pass and move game. As a result, the encounter descended into a gritty, physical contest. United had the lion’s share of possession, as well as creating the most clear cut chances, yet their inability in front of goal once again cost them three points.

‘The Mem’ is a shoddy little stadium situated on the Gloucester Road in Bristol. The majority of the ground is terraced and the United fans were squeezed into a corner of the open Uplands Stand. In the open terrace, it was difficult for the U’s fans to generate much of an atmosphere, as most of the chants were lost in the whipping wind. Tied to this, the spectacle did not exactly did not really set the pulses running and so the Oxford fans were uncharacteristically muted for the majority of the game.

Manager Chris Wilder set United up in their customary 4-3-3 formation, with new loan signing Marc Wilson starting in midfield alongside Peter Leven and Andy Whing. James Constable spearheaded the front trio, with Scott Rendell and Mehdi Kerrouche either side of him. Both Rendell and Kerrouche were hugely disappointing. In particular, Kerrouche, on loan from Swindon, looked out of his depth. The Algerian lost the ball an infuriating number of times in the first half. Di Canio must be smiling on the other side of the A420; this is not the man who is going to send us on a promotion charge. Rendell was far more effectual than Kerrouche, yet was lazy and immobile. He was also presented with a golden opportunity to take the lead in the second half, but after being sent through on goal, headed the ball tamely into the hands of man of the match, Michael Poke. Oxford’s other two loan signings, Oli Johnson and Lee Holmes were amongst the substitutes for this match, but looked livelier and more composed on the ball when they were introduced. Holmes is a player that has been blighted by injuries, but has unquestionable talent. If Oxford can get him firing for the remainder of his loan spell, he could prove to be a real coup for Wilder’s side. In our match against Barnet tonight, Wilder ought to plumb for Johnson and Holmes in place of the ineffective duo of Kerrouche and Rendell.

On another note, Andy Whing must be taken out of the midfield three. He does not possess the pace, composure or ability to play in central midfield. It was revealing to attend the game with 15 of my friends from Bristol University (many of whom had never watched the Yellows before). Their assessment was that Whing was our weakest link, and I have to agree with them. Admittedly, Whing is a whole-hearted battler with bulldog spirit. However, this attribute is not enough to earn him a place in our starting eleven. Asa Hall is also a committed and physical holding midfield player, but is more comfortable on the ball than Whing and has far greater stamina. Similarly, Paul McLaren is a safer bet than Whing and ought to be restored to the starting team when fully fit. Aside from this, my friends from university thought that Constable was excellent. His hold up play, physical presence and goal scoring record rightfully make him one of the most coveted forwards in the division. As well as this, Jake Wright and Michael Duberry also won many plaudits. Wright was superb on Saturday, demonstrated when he made two perfectly timed tackles in the dying moments of the game. Our veteran defender, Duberry, complimented the elegant Wright with his powerful frame and awesome aerial presence. On the whole, the back four looked solid and this is the main positive that can be taken from the encounter.

Oxford now have three consecutive home games against Barnet, Macclesfield and Swindon. The outcome of these three matches will, quite simply, define our season.

Thursday, 16 February 2012

Oxford Defeat Daggers In Crucial Victory

On Valentines Day, Oxford recorded their first league win in four matches at home to Dagenham & Redbridge. Having reached League 1 courtesy of the play-offs two years ago, the Daggers are now in real danger of suffering two consecutive relegations. This is hardly surprising; given the club's stature, fan base and tiny stadium, it was only a matter of time before reality caught up with them. However, the swift nature of their fall must still be rather alarming to Dagenham supporters.

This was a victory that leaves Oxford three points clear of the chasing play-off pack and gives the U's much-needed impetus ahead of a tricky away tie to Bristol Rovers, followed by two home matches against struggling Barnet and Macclesfield. After this, of course, Swindon come to town.

Once again, Wilder has turned to loan signings as his short-term fix. Since siging Scott Rendell, Marc Wilson and Oli Johnson on loan, Wilder has also brought Lee Holmes from Southampton and controversially, Mehdi Kerrouche from Paolo Di Canio's Swindon. Wilder's obsession with loaness does slightly worry me. Although the core of the team is still in place, I can't help feeling that such an influx of new faces must disrupt the balance of the side. Moreover, the hunger and committment of a loan player is never as great as one who is contracted to the club. If things turn against Oxford in the coming weeks, these 5 players can simply jump ship back to their parent clubs. Having said this, these players all arrive with impressive reputations (especially Lee Holmes) and so this will increase competition within Wilder's squad.

A win at the Memorial Stadium against a revived Bristol Rovers outfit would be a fantastic result and would really provide Oxford with the momentum and morale to sustain their promotion push.

Saturday, 4 February 2012

Frantic End To The Month For Oxford

Oxford United’s inconsistency has, once again, derailed their promotion push. Having massacred Aldershot Town at the Recreation Ground on January 7, the U’s then failed to defeat both Crewe Alexandra and struggling Hereford United at the Kassam. A battling draw followed away at Burton Albion, which has left Oxford clinging on to the last play-off place. Oxford have a tough job to remain in this position, as a cluster of teams including the likes of Gillingham, Accrington Stanley and Port Vale lie in wait just below them. Moreover, an alarmingly seven point gap has opened up between Oxford in seventh and Torquay United in sixth.

Let’s start with the Crewe game. As ever, the away side possessed a host of talented, skilful young players courtesy of their famous academy. Luke Murphy in the centre of their midfield was particularly impressive. Despite this, Oxford dominated the proceedings, especially the first half, with the recently re-called Jon Paul-Pitman very lively. However, the home side squandered a hatful of chances. Unfortunately, this was to prove costly. In the second half, the Alex played with greater confidence as their well-honed technical abilities began to shine through. Oxford, on the other hand, had gone into the shell. After creating numerous opportunities in the first half, the U’s now seemed unable to keep hold of the ball and the contest became a rather dire spectacle. A goalless draw looked on the cards. However, Crewe had other ideas. After a ten minute period of dominance at the end of the game, Crewe finally pinched it at the death, when a well-worked move started by Nick Powell was finished by substitute Greg Pearson. A bitter blow for Oxford and a major dent in the promotion dream.

The disappointment of the Crewe match was quickly forgotten when news filtered in during the week that the club had accepted a bid for star striker and talisman, James Constable. Anger, shock and outrage followed when it transpired that this club was our arch-rivals, Swindon Town. If Swindon had offered half a million or more for Constable’s services, I could see the logic behind Kelvin Thomas’ and Chris Wilder’s decision. However, the bid was a measly £200,000. Why then had Oxford accepted the bid? It sent out the wrong message; by allowing Swindon to effectively poach one of our best players for such a pitiful sum, it suggested that Oxford were inferior in size and status to their chief rivals. What most hurt the supporters was precisely this: the club was seemingly admitting that Swindon were a bigger club. In an ugly turn of events, supporters then took to Twitter to abuse Constable, while fans on OUFC message boards attacked Thomas’ and Wilder’s transfer policy. However, what had been completely overlooked during the entire episode was Constable’s point of view. Supporters had wrongly turned on him, before knowing the facts. Oxford might have accepted a bid for his services, but ‘Beano’ had no intention of joining our neighbours. Indeed, he did not even travel to Swindon to talk to their representatives. As such, the whole transfer was off. In an age where greedy players hop from club to club, Constable demonstrated that loyalty can still exist in football.

And so onto Hereford. Unsurprisingly, Constable received a hero’s reception from the United faithful and the fans chanted his name throughout the encounter. He could even have snatched the headlines, when he was presented with a late chance to steal the points. As it was, the day will belong to Michael Duberry for his comical ‘hat-trick.’ United had gone ahead thanks to a fantastic strike from Pitman, before the bizarre turn of events. First a Jack Colbeck cross was diverted home by Duberry before the break. Then, with United desperately pushing for a winner late in the second half, Duberry headed home a wild Hereford shot into his own net. Oxford now looked set to lose their second consecutive home match to a late goal. However, in the last minute of normal time, Duberry went up the other end and converted a Batt cross calmly into the bottom corner. An improbable hat-trick and an extraodinary day, yet still a result that Oxford will rue come the end of the season.

Next up were Burton Albion at the Pirelli stadium. After a dismal first half showing where United fell behind to an Adam Bolder strike, Oxford responded positively in the second half. Alfie Potter scored a top-quality solo goal (another wonder goal for Oxford this season) and the U's ought to have nicked it late on. However, Potter and then Constable both missed late opportunities.

Unfortunately, Oxford's match schelduled for this afternoon against Barnet at the Kassam Stadium has been cancelled due to a frozen pitch. United's next game is therefore a tricky tester away at Accrington Stanley.

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Dreaming of Promotion Once More...

Since my last post, Oxford United have played a further three fixtures. Saturday's emphatic victory away at Aldershot brings an end to the exhausting winter period. The U's have impressed over the festive period and are now six games unbeaten. Moreover, United have crept back into the much coveted play-off places and are only two points behind in-form arch-rivals, Swindon Town.

Following Boxing Day's comfortable, yet indifferent display away at struggling AFC Wimbledon, the Yellows travelled to the seaside to play Torquay United. The Gulls always provide a stiff test, especially at Plainmoor. Despite losing manager Paul Buckle and host of integral players, including former Oxford striker Chris Zebroksi over the Summer, Torquay are once more punching above their weight in the division. A 0-0 draw was therefore a pleasing result and chalked up another clean sheet for Ryan Clarke and the United back four. The encounter also saw a return to action for fans' favourite Michael Duberry, whose leadership qualities have been sorely missed the past month.

After two matches on the road, Oxford were back at the Kassam Stadium for a tricky test against league leaders and firm favourites for promotion, Crawley Town. This little known club, whose wealthy financial source is a mystery to all, stormed the Conference last season and are intent on replicating their success in League 2 this time round. As soon as the match got underway, it was easy to see why Crawley have been so effective. Under the watchful eye of Steve Evans, the no-nonsense Scot who was prosecuted for tax invasion while managing Boston United, Crawley have become an efficient, organised and powerful unit. Similarly to Graham Westley's Stevenage side, they always offer opponents a bruising test. Moreover, their financial clout has meant they have attracted former Premier League players such as Claude Davis to their club, while their startlet up front, Tyrone Barnett, would surely be playing at a higher level were it not for his healthy financial package.

Unsurprisingly, Crawley took the game to Oxford and deserved to be ahead at half-time. However, United held firm and in the second half, Jon Paul Pittman charged down Crawley keeper Scott Shearer's kick, leaving him with the simple task of tapping the ball into the gaping net. Perhaps this is the goal to kick-start Pittman's stuttering career at Oxford, after being loaned out to their opponents for three months this season. After Pittman's fluke goal, Crawley went into their shell and it looked as if United would hold out for a morale boosting victory. However, with almost the last kick of the game, Crawley's quality shone through when Barnett turned on the edge of the box and sent a superb shot into the top corner. A cruel blow, yet an important point nonetheless.

Only five days later, Oxford United travelled to Aldershot, determined to put right the unjust draw at the Kassam earlier in the season. Thankfully, they did just that, hammering the home side 3-0 thanks to first half strikes from Pittman, Duberry and the scintillating Peter Leven. With two home fixtures coming up, against Crewe Alexandra and Hereford United, both of whom are occupying places in the lower reaches of the table, Oxford will surely fancy their chances of climbing even higher in the League.

I'll leave you with this sidenote: If the table finished as it now stands, Oxford would face Swindon in a two leg semi-final play-off encounter. That would be quite tasty wouldn't it?

Friday, 30 December 2011

United Ease To Victory In Front of Sky Sports Cameras

Boxing Day. A special day in the football calendar. As the English season nears its half-way stage, December 26 always serves up some festive treats. It is the first of three integral matches played in quick succession over the Christmas period that can either kick start or derail a campaign. It is crunch time for a manager, especially those struggling to keep their side above the dreaded drop. With the January transfer window looming, it is equally important for players to prove their worth. As such, Boxing Day matches tend to be fast, ferocious and enthralling encounters.

Quite how Oxford United had managed to sneak onto Sky Sports 1 on such a great footballing day was therefore rather astonishing. One can only presume it was because Oxford’s opponents on Boxing Day were the people’s club, AFC Wimbledon. The story of AFC Wimbledon is a remarkable one. The club was founded in 2002 after the FA sanctioned Wimbledon FC’s relocation to Milton Keynes. Since then, AFC have gone on to achieve a staggering five promotions in only nine years. Their promotion in last year’s Conference playoff final against Luton Town was greeted with cheers by every (well, not Luton’s) football fan in the country. This is because the club’s success in the last decade has been the result of a hard-core group of dedicated fans determined to keep their beloved club in existence.

Since their formation in 2002, AFC Wimbledon have shared the Kingsmeadow ground with their non-league neighbours, Kingstonian. Unsurprisingly, Kingsmeadow was more out of the Underhill school of League 2 grounds than Oxford’s plush all-seater stadium. Apart from the Paul Strank stand running along one side of the pitch, the rest of the ground (also known as the ‘Cherry Red Records Stadium’) is made up of terracing. The Oxford fans had been allocated a generous 700 tickets in the ‘John Smiths’ Terrace’ opposite the Paul Strank Stand. It was a squeeze, to put it politely. In fact, we were so close to the ground that when there was a pause in the singing, Chris Wilder’s thick Yorkshire accent could be clearly heard barking instructions at his players (in particular Alfie Potter). This was boot room football and a stark reminder that our club was rooted in the basement of the Football League.

To the game itself. Oxford had made only one change to the starting eleven that eased to victory over Northampton the previous week. Rob Hall’s mid-week departure to his parent club, West Ham, had seen his namesake, Asa, recalled to a starting berth. It was thus Ryan Clarke in goal, an unchanged back four, a midfield three of the energetic Simon Heslop, the mercurial Peter Leven and the battling Hall, with an attacking trio of Tom Craddock, Potter and James Constable.

In truth, Oxford’s victory was more the result of the home side’s failings than any stroke of genius produced by the Yellows. In the first half, AFC Wimbledon were shocking. Their confidence was clearly at rock bottom having not recorded a win in the League since October 8. Despite this, Oxford started the game sluggishly. It was not until ten minutes into the encounter that the away side had their first sighting on goal when a smart move ended in Craddock wildly shooting over the bar. Five minutes later though, Oxford took the lead. A weaving Potter run saw the ball slipped into the path of Constable, who placed the ball coolly past Seb Brown in the Dons net. Vintage Constable.

On the sidelines, the Wimbledon manager, Terry Brown urged his team to respond, but bar a tame shot from Sammy Moore, none was forthcoming. To make matters worse for Brown and his team, United doubled their advantage on the stroke of half time. A teasing Leven corner was met by the unmarked Hall who guided his header into the gaping net. It was all too easy for the away side, who had barely needed to get out of second gear.

After a bleak first half showing, the home side rallied after the break. Almost straight from the re-start, the ‘Wombles’ were denied a stone-wall penalty by Andy D’Urso, the former Premier League official after Hall brought down an onrushing Wimbledon player in the box. There was further frustration for the Dons two minutes later when Rashid Yussuff rattled the bar with only Clarke to beat. Yussuff’s missed chance finally sparked the lethargic away side into life and the U’s responded with an intricate move that once again fell to Craddock, who shot straight at Brown. Similarly to the first half, the U’s gradually took charge of proceedings and another impressive move in front of the SKY cameras between Leven and Damian Batt, should have seen Craddock bury the chance that finally came his way. With the game nearing its conclusion, substitute Anthony Tonkin ought to have netted his first of the season with a free header from a corner while SKY’s man of the match, Potter, went close with a scorching shot.

An important win and our third in the capital this campaign, but United are still yet to reach the level of performance they produced in October. This victory does not disguise the fact that there are still areas where United will need to improve. In particular, Andy Whing must be replaced with Michael Duberry when the former Chelsea man is back to full fitness. Whing was booked in this game for a rash tackle and against more lively opponents, he will be cruelly exposed for his lack of pace and inexperience at the heart of the defence.

The next two matches, away at Torquay and home to Crawley will provide a stiff test of Oxford’s promotion credentials.

Man of the match: Asa Hall

On a last note, I was bitterly disappointed by the reaction of the Oxford fans to Jack Midson. In the second half, Midson appeared to take a tumble in the United penalty area. The replays show that, in fact, there was a degree of contact. Still, Midson was booked by D’Urso and then abused by the U’s faithful for the remainder of the game. Midson was a gutsy and determined player who always gave it everything in a yellow shirt. Moreover, he was a crucial member of our promotion winning side. Without him, we might still be languishing in the Blue Square Bet Premier. As with any popular and important former player, he ought to receive a hero’s reception when he plays against the U’s. The boos sickened me.

Saturday, 17 December 2011

United Inflict Further Misery on Sorry Cobblers

Oxford United recorded their first victory in seven matches this afternoon with a comfortable victory over a diabolical Northampton Town. Aidy Boothroyd, the Cobblers’ new boss must have wondered what he has signed up to. At least it was only a one-year contract. From the clumsy distribution of Ben Tozer at the heart of the defence to the 16 stone frame of Adebayo Akinfenwa in attack, Northampton appeared a disorganised shambles. Boothroyd, once the rookie manager of the Premiership when he was at Watford, has his work cut out to simply keep the club in the division. If not, the taunts from the Oxford Mail stand of ‘Tuesday night, Barrow away!’ will become a very real prospect. That is an experience that I would not wish upon any loyal football fan.

With Oxford United also shorn of confidence, it was never going to be a classic encounter at the Kassam Stadium this afternoon. While it was a victory that did not paper over the cracks within Oxford’s team, it was a much-needed three points that sees the U’s rise to eighth in the table, just outside the play-offs. Ahead of a packed festive footballing calendar, it was a crucial result and one that the Yellows must now capitalise on.

On a crisp December afternoon, the home side started the brighter of the two struggling teams. From the kick off, Robert Hall, playing on the right side of four man midfield, whipped in a cross which James Constable was unable to direct on target. Indeed, the change in formation to a 4-4-2 seemed to give United the width they had desperately required in the previous home match against Cheltenham Town and led to a flurry of early crosses into the nervy Northampton penalty area. However, the Cobblers held firm amid United’s early dominance and began to grow into the contest. In an impressive ten minute spell, they deserved to take the lead. First, Arron Davies, one of Northampton’s brightest sparks, fizzed a shot wide of the post. Then, a Northampton corner was nearly diverted into the United net, but was cleared off the line by Simon Heslop. This was followed only moments later by Saido Berahino finding himself through on goal, only to direct his shot straight at the onrushing Ryan Clarke.

United’s confidence was at an all-time low. In particular, Heslop and Damian Batt were struggling to exert themselves on proceedings and were caught in possession on a number of occasions. The crowd was growing restless. Oxford needed a goal. Unfortunately, none was forthcoming. Hall sliced a left-foot shot wide of Sam Walker’s goal and then a cleverly worked corner between Heslop and Peter Leven was saved comfortably by the Chelsea loanee. Just how vast is Chelsea’s youth academy? It seems that almost every professional began his career at Stamford Bridge. On the stroke of half time, a trademark Leven corner was almost diverted home, but it was cleared off the line. Referee Bates then blew for the end of a cagey and frustrating forty-five minutes.

The second half resumed in much the same manner, with the crowd requiring a lift from the players to wake them from the previous night’s office Christmas party. In fact, Northampton provided the first piece of magic in the half as Michael Jacobs smashed a twenty-five yard drive into the roof of the net, only to find that Bates had already blown for a Northampton foul. Jacobs was, by a country mile, Northampton’s best player. A youngster who has come through their youth ranks, how he must be wishing he had been nurtured elsewhere.

Just to add insult to injury, three minutes later it was the home side who took the lead. A suicidal clearance from the clueless Cobblers defence fell straight into the path of Alfie Potter. The little maestro jinked past an opposing defender before laying a pass into Tom Craddock who swivelled and smashed a fantastic left foot shot into the far corner of the net. This was vintage Craddock. After a virtually anonymous first half showing, he had bagged his customary goal.

Despite this, the U’s did not go on to batter their frail opponents in the same way that Shrewsbury had managed a fortnight ago. If anything, they were fortunate that the Cobblers did not cancel out their advantage. With twenty minutes remaining, Akinfenwa was slipped through and were it not for a crucial intervention from Jake Wright, the biggest man in the Football League would have wheeled away and performed his trademark dancing celebration.

With the game drawing to a close, there was a dramatic last ten minutes in store. First, Craddock was hauled down in Northampton’s box by the woeful Tozer for a penalty. What followed from the resulting spot-kick was rather spectacular, as Craddock smashed the ball high and wide out of the ground and into the car park. The ball was still rising as it flew over the fence behind Northampton’s goal. Thankfully, it did not prove costly, as only two minutes later the rampaging Constable powered his way down the left wing before drilling a firm cross into the box that Deane Smalley (yes Deane Smalley) tapped in for the winner. This was Smalley’s first goal at the Kassam in what has been a testing season for our summer signing. Better late than never I suppose.

Smalley’s shock goal did not spell the end of the drama however, as Heslop missed a five-yard sitter, before that man Akinfenwa had a last gasp penalty wonderfully saved by the excellent Clarke in United’s net. A thrilling last ten minutes in what had otherwise been a dreary encounter void of creativity, invention and panache.

Still, this is a massive boost for Oxford prior to Boxing Day’s clash away at AFC Wimbledon, who have not won in the League since October 8.

Man of the Match: Liam Davis. I can’t believe it was officially given to Andy Whing. His admirable performance today does not disguise the fact that he is out of his depth both in this division and at the heart of the defence. We desperately need Michael Duberry back. Since his absence, Oxford have not only leaked goals but have looked rudderless. His leadership qualities are essential to Oxford’s success.

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Battling Draw Provides Festive Cheer

A scrappy 0-0 on a boggy mud bath in the North-West of England is not a result that immediately catches the eye. It does not point to a classic encounter filled with goal-mouth action. Jeff Stelling, on Gillette Soccer Saturday, barely mentioned the result at the Globe Arena. The rest of the world, it seemed, were far too excited about that evening's 'El Clasico' to care about proceedings at a chilly, wind-swept ground in Morecambe.

But we're happy. Fans of Oxford United are delighted about the dour 0-0 in Morecambe. Finally, after a miserable run of five defeats, the U's have halted the rut. Moreover, this is a decent result whatever the circumstances. Morecambe are the Stoke City of League 2; physical, fit and difficult to break down. Not many teams turn the Shrimps over at the Globe Arena.

Perhaps Morecambe were unfortunate not to win the game. Their spritely centre-forward, Lewis Alessandra went close with three long-range drives. Oxford had their chances too, though; a rasping Damian Batt shot from outside the box in the second-half was smartly saved by Shrimps captain Barry Roche. In a game of few chances, a goal-less draw seemed a fair result.

The highlight of the game from an Oxford United perspective was the return to first team action of Adam 'Chappers' Chapman. The Northern Irishman had last appeared for United at Wembley in the play-off final in May 2010, after which he broke down in tears on the pitch. Chapman was subsequently sentenced to prison for causing death by dangerous driving. He was released from prison in September this year, yet he then sustained a foot injury which had prevented him from making a first-team appearance since then.

So while the rest of the world turned their attention to the Bernabeau and all the glamour and showboating that comes with it, Oxford United fans could relax in the knowledge that their team had picked up a battling draw on a mud bath in Morecambe.

Sunday, 4 December 2011

Struggling U's Desperately Need Win

Since I last blogged, things have gone from bad to worse at the Kassam. The optimism that I displayed in my last post has now given way to a feeling of defeatism, depression and disappointment. Oxford United have hit a rut at perhaps the critical moment in the season; the lead up to the packed Christmas calendar. In much the same way as last season, the U’s have crashed to five straight losses (albeit two were not in the all-important League).

It is difficult to pinpoint exactly why Oxford have suffered such a blip in form. Admittedly, United have faced the top three teams in League 2 in Southend, Crawley Town and Cheltenham, with the clashes against the Shrimps and financially lucrative Crawley coming away from the Kassam. Injuries have been another major factor in United’s slide down the table. Michael Duberry’s leadership qualities and no-nonsense defending has been a particularly sore loss for United. The Yellows have also missed Alfie Potter’s wing wizardry and ability to unlock any defence in this division with his direct running in the latter stages of games. Added to this, Robbie Hall’s goal-scoring and electric pace has been keenly felt after he was recalled to his parent club, West Ham, to ease an injury crisis of their own. Although Hall has now thankfully re-signed for Oxford on loan, his four game absence coincided with four straight defeats for Oxford. Unfortunately, Danny Philliskirk and Jonathan Franks who were drafted in to replace the youngster looked drastically short of match fitness and failed to make the grade, while Deane Smalley has been dismal for United this campaign, mustering only a single goal and that in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy. Moreover, on Hall’s return to first team, at home to Cheltenham, he seemed to have lost some of the confidence and form he displayed during his first prolific spell. We can only hope that he re-discovers his spark, and quickly.

"Michael Duberry’s leadership qualities and no-nonsense defending has been a particularly sore loss for United"

Manager Chris Wilder must too take a share of the blame. His decision to replace the side-lined Duberry with the hapless Andrew Whing in the centre of defence is baffling. Whing may well have won Brighton’s player of the season only three seasons ago, but he is clearly a shadow of the player he once was. His frightful lack of pace has left Oxford extremely susceptible to opposing forwards. He is certainly not a central defender. Surely Harry Worley, although hardly faultless himself, deserves a chance ahead of Whing.

I’ll start with the Crawley game. In truth, it was always going to be a tough test, whatever form Oxford found themselves in prior to the game. Two early goals from Crawley’s outstanding centre forward, Tyrone Barnett, put United on the back foot and from there United faced an uphill battle. A spirited fight-back followed, with the tenacious James Constable bagging himself a goal through gutsy determination, when he refused to give up on a through ball and squeezed it past Scott Shearer. It is such battling qualities that have so endeared ‘Beano’ to the Oxford faithful the past few seasons. He really has cemented himself in the Oxford United annals.

Unfortunately, the U’s were unable to capitalise on Constable’s goal and in the third minute of stoppage time in the first half, a miss-hit cross from Adam Drury squirmed under Ryan Clarke to make it 3-1 and almost certainly game over. It was a rare howler from Oxford’s solid goalkeeper, but a costly one, as the Yellows struggled to assert themselves in the game thereafter, eventually conceding another goal to make it 4-1 at the final whistle. Oxford had been well-beaten on the day by a team that will view anything other than automatic promotion as a failed campaign.

And so on to Cheltenham Town. Our ‘noisy neighbours’? Not really. Indeed, it staggered me that a team sitting in third place in the division could not even bring a thousand fans to a ground less than an hour away. Those who had made the short journey had every reason to be cheerful, however. As soon as the match got underway, it became clear why the Robins, despite their limited budget, were occupying an automatic promotion place. Under the watchful eye of manager Mark Yates, Cheltenham zipped the ball around on the Kassam turf, leaving the home side to chase shadows. Cheltenham’s forward, Darryl Duffy, a player still desperately trying to re-capture the form from his Falkirk days over five years ago now, looked particularly spritely. With only ten minutes on the clock, the Robins made their early pressure count. An over hit cross (or was it a stroke of genius?) by Cheltenham cult-hero Sido Jombati sailed over Ryan Clarke’s outstretched glove and into the United net.

"Cheltenham’s forward, Darryl Duffy, a player still desperately trying to re-capture the form from his Falkirk days over five years ago now, looked particularly spritely"

We all hoped that this set-back would incite some energy and passion into Oxford’s play, but alas, none was forthcoming. Lewis Guy, on his first game back in a yellow shirt following his mid-week loan move from Milton Keynes Dons, was particularly ineffectual. I am yet to see what Wilder sees in the former Newcastle youth player. For the rest of the half, Cheltenham continued to play their neat, intricate football and deservedly went in ahead at half-time.

At the break, Wilder decided to replace defensive midfielder, Paul McLaren (who was also on a booking), with striker Deane Smalley, which saw United change to a 4-4-2 formation. Unfortunately, this tactical decision failed to galvanise Oxford into action and on 54 minutes, left-back Liam Davis was rightfully shown a second yellow card for an unnecessary lunge on Jombati. To make matters worse, a minute later, a Cheltenham corner was scrambled in by James Spencer at the back post to make it 2-0 to the away side.

This was surely game over. Sensing this, a few shameful fans left their seats and headed to the exit. Disgraceful. Cheltenham’s second actually spurred the restless Oxford crowd into song and the players responded to the chorus of chants from behind the goal. First, Peter Leven went close with a spectacularly struck free-kick which Cheltenham’s outstanding, yet cocky, young goalkeeper, Jack Butland was equal to. Then United’s workhorse, Constable, fired a screaming shot to Butland’s left, which he somehow managed to claw away. Butland, on loan from Birmingham, was justifying his recent call up to the England U21 set up. Still United kept coming and with ten minutes remaining, a sublime 30 yard free kick from the magical left-foot of Leven finally alluded Butland and somehow, Oxford were back in the encounter.

Sadly, Oxford were denied a late rally, as Cheltenham’s outstanding performer on the day, Marlon Pack’s, free kick five minutes from time was cruelly deflected past Clarke to send the Cheltenham supporters into wild delirium.

With no game this weekend, having been beaten by Sheffield United in the FA Cup 1st Round, it gives Oxford two weeks to address their slump in form and reduce their lengthy injury list. With a kinder festive fixture list round the corner, against the likes of struggling Northampton Town and off-form AFC Wimbledon, next week’s match away at Morecambe is crucial. A scrappy win would be the perfect tonic to halt our slide down the League 2 table.

Monday, 14 November 2011

Three Defeats Yet U's Still Optimistic

Since I last blogged, United have lost three matches on the trot. Should we start panicking? Are Oxford about to enter one of their trademark desperate downward spirals? No. Relax. Remain cheerful. All is still well at the Kassam.

While it is true that the U's have suffered three consecutive defeats, only one of these has come in the unpredictable League 2. Moreover, this loss was recorded at Roots Hall, home of table toppers, Southend United.

Judging from the match highlights, post-match reaction and BBC stats, the Yellows were mightly unlucky not to draw, or even win the contest. As Paul Sturrock, the Southend boss, admitted in his post-match interview: 'To be fair, a lot of people will walk away knowing that the better team today lost.' This does appear to be true. United amassed an impressive 15 shots on target, compared to the Shrimpers' six. However, Oxford's failure to capitalise on their dominance, particularly in the first half, was once again the catalyst for their downfall. One can only hope that this result does not prove crucial come crunch time in May.

Unfortunately, this result saw us slip below Swindon in the table as we dropped to seventh, still in a play-off place but by the skin of our teeth. What better way to avenge Saturday's defeat than by beating the same opponents in the Johnstone's Paint Trophy on Tuesday night?

Sadly, it seems that Southend are quickly our bogey club. After substitute keeper, Wayne Brown, was dismissed for handling the ball outside his area after only ten minutes, it was always going to be an uphill task for the home team. Given that manager Chris Wilder decides against naming a substitute goalkeeper, poor Asa Hall was forced to don the gloves. His first contribution was to pick the ball out of the net from the resulting set-piece. That is how the scoreline remained for the following eighty minutes. Indeed, the main action came ten minutes into the second half, when a mass brawl started on the half way line; Southend's Anthony Grant was the first to receive his marching orders and Tom Craddock, on his long-awaited return from injury, followed Grant down the tunnel shortly afterwards.

Our next encounter was in the FA Cup, in what was a glamour tie away at League 1 giants, Sheffield United. The fixture meant an emotional return to Bramall Lane for boy-hood Blades' fan and former player, Wilder and also for United's goalkeeping coaching, Alan Hodgkinson, who represented Sheffield United over 600 times.

Sadly, no shock was forthcoming as United fell to an early goal from former Manchester City striker, Ched Evans, before a further strike from the Welshman and one from Ryan Flynn helped seal Oxford's fate.

This does not necessarily mean that there will be no FA Cup fever within Oxfordshire this year. Oxford City drew away at Redbridge, which saw them into the hat for the 2nd round. A victory in the replay, would see them travel to Crawley Town, which, incidentally, is United's next League game.

Expect fireworks.

Sunday, 30 October 2011

Leven Scores Greatest Ever Goal at the Kassam to Defeat Vale

Yesterday’s sensational game at the Kassam will forever be remembered for that goal. The best goal we have witnessed at the Kassam Stadium in ten years.

With the scores locked at one a piece, Peter Leven, our classy Scottish midfielder intercepted a pass in the centre circle and spotted the Vale keeper, Stuart Tomlinson, off his line. What then followed will stick in the memory of Oxford United fans for years to come. Leven looked up, before executing a perfectly weighted strike from the half way line over Tomlinson’s outstretched hands and into the net. It was sort of goal that we may occasionally see on Match of the Day if we are lucky. We never expected such a moment of footballing genius at a League 2 fixture.

To even attempt such an audacious effort underlines the sheer confidence that is running through Oxford’s team at the moment. Following our impressive 5-1 battering over bottom club, Plymouth Argyle, on Tuesday night (where Leven scored another superb goal), Oxford are on a roll. Micky Adams’ Port Vale visited the Kassam at the wrong time.

United’s only change from Tuesday’s match saw Andrew Whing replace the suspended Damian Batt. Thankfully, Batt’s suspension is only for a single game as Whing’s woeful lack of pace consistently left the U’s susceptible on the Vale’s left side.

Despite this minor mishap, Oxford carried on where they left off on Tuesday night and stormed into the lead on ten minutes, courtesy of cult hero and centre-back colossus, Michael Duberry. An inswinging Leven corner was met firmly by the experienced head of the ‘Dubes’, who proceeded to tear down the Kassam pitch towards the Oxford Mail pumping his arms widely in the air with a wide grin etched across his face. It is such clear displays of passion that have so endeared Duberry to the United faithful.

United then created a host of chances to double their advantage. Rob Hall, in particular was unfortunate not to add another goal to his impressive United tally, as Tomlinson pulled off a fine save to deny the best thing to have come out of Aylesbury since the A41.

Still, Oxford needed to be on their guard as Vale, under the watchful eye of experienced manager Adams, also had their chances to level the scores. Ryan Clarke saved expertly from Doug Loft and captain Jake Wright made two outstanding defensive blocks from the same player to ensure that the Yellows went in ahead at the break.

In the second half, Oxford had the clearest opportunity to extend their lead. The indefatigable James Constable bustled his way down the right flank before squaring the ball for Alfie Potter, who dummed (fluffed) his shot into the path of Leven, who sent a screaming left foot drive inches wide of the goal. Minutes later, Hall stung the fingertips of Tomlinson with a ferocious shot inside the box.

Oxford were left to rue these missed chances, though, as on 62 minutes Vale’s talisman Marc Richards put the away side level after a neat move. Similarly to last year, the 839 away supporters went crazy and tried to storm the Kassam turf. With half an hour to go, Oxford faced the prospect of throwing away a home lead for the 5th time already this season.

Before we even had time to contemplate this depressing statistic, though, Leven’s moment of magic sent the Oxford Mail into a wild and disbelieving frenzy. Supporters grabbed one another, screaming in each other’s faces at the incredible nature of the goal.

The drama did not stop there. With ten minutes left on the clock, the hapless referee, Mark Haywood, who also officiated the Swindon game, gave a dubious penalty against Duberry. Richards stepped up and powerfully struck his shot to Clarke’s right, who pulled off a magnificent, match-winning save.

This save emphasises how every single player is contributing to United’s push up the table. We will need this togetherness for our next two league games, away at league leaders Southend United and second place Crawley Town.

But we do not need to think about that just yet. For now, let’s just continue to enjoy watching highlights of Leven’s spectacular effort.

Man of the Match: Peter Leven

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Consistency the key for exciting United

It's been a very busy month. I have returned to University where I have been appointed the Sports Editor of the paper. I have also spent too much time in Bristol nightclubs. Hence my lack of regular posts on the blog.

Since I last wrote here, Oxford have continued to impress and recently sat in the giddy heights of an automatic promotion place. However, last weekend's loss to Kent outfit Gillingham has seen us slide back down to seventh, albeit still a very respectable position.

I'll start with the Accrington Stanley match, where the Yellows were once again held at the Kassam. Although many fans berated United's inability to turn draws into wins at home on BBC Radio Oxford after the game, I must give John Coleman's side credit here. Stanley, similarly to last year, played some attractive football and clearly have a very strong team spirit running through their team. Moreover, their playmaker, the bald-header scouser Ian Craney, is one of the most talented players I have seen grace the Kassam in the last few seasons. He was a constant threat to the Oxford defence and it was he that helped Accrington to a well-deserved point last month.

In the blistering sunshine at Edgar Street, Oxford responsed in the best possible manner, defeating struggling Hereford by a single Robert Hall goal. Hall has proved to be one of Wilder's most inspired loan signings; his electric pace, tricky footwork and eye for a goal have been crucial to United's success this month. He's one of the those players who can actually get away with sporting yellow boots. I'm not sure I can quite say the same about Michael Duberry's white ones. A quick word on 'Dubes.' He is turning out to be a colossus for us at the back. He has turned our shaky back four of last year into a solid, organised unit.

A few days later in the JPT (the trophy fans secretly want their team to get knocked out of), United recorded an away victory over Aldershot. Remarkably, Deane Smalley got on the score sheet, through a stunning solo effort. I'm rather eager for us to defeat Southend in the next round, as a two leg tie against Swindon could await. On a rainy Tuesday night, that could be quite tasty.

The next game against Bristol Rovers was one I had been really looking for to, given my University roots. In front of a large crowd, Oxford produced a superb performance running out 3-0 winners. Constable, Oxford's talisman netted twice. His first on sixteen minutes was vintage 'Beano'; he twisted Rovers' lanky centre back, Cian Bolger, inside out before giving himself room to smash the ball home. Wonderful stuff.

This was followed by a trip up north to lowly Macclesfield (which I confess, I did not attend). Moss Rose is one of United's bogey grounds, shown by last year's match where the Yellows managed to throw away a two goal lead. Oxford looked like losing to the Silkmen yet again, but drew level with the last kick of the match thanks to Robert Hall.

This result left Oxford third in the division. Unfortunately, last week's disappointing result at Priestfield has seen us move back into the play-off places. Worst still, the Gills had been reduced to ten men with the whole of the second half to play (and nine men just before the end), but much like the Crewe game, Oxford could not finish a host of chances that fell their way.

United now have two important home matches, against rock bottom Plymouth and traditionally strong Port Vale to try and steer themselves back into those much-coveted automatic spots.

Monday, 19 September 2011

United Sting Bees

This was put on the Rage Online website:

They don’t make football grounds like Underhill anymore. What a shame. This tatty, crumbling stadium with its rusty turnstiles and uncovered terraces is a special place to watch football. It has a wonderful retro charm and is a reminder of how football used to be, before the days of executive boxes and plush all-seater stadiums starved of any atmosphere.

The Oxford fans were squeezed together in the covered East Terrace running along the side of the pitch and thanks to the fantastic acoustics in the stand could cause a real racket. The one draw-back of being so tightly packed together was that it was difficult to catch all the action, as one had to stand on tip-toe and peer in between fans when the ball made its way into the corners of the pitch.

Underhill is also a tricky ground for the players to contend with. Reminiscent of the Manor and Portsmouth’s Fratton Park, there is a devious slope that runs down the pitch. This can be a home side’s secret weapon.

Chris Wilder had elected to stick with the side that won convincingly at Dagenham on Tuesday night. New loan signing (how many are there?) Andy Howarth, who arrived from Bury this week, had to settle for a place on the bench. Andrew Whing had recovered from his illness and was also among the substitutes. Thankfully, Wilder had decided to start Damien Batt in place of the more defensive Whing. Lawrie Sanchez had also set his team out in the 4-3-3 formation favoured by Oxford’s boss. The first thing that struck me about Barnet was the size of their centre backs, the Australian Daniel Leach and Cameroonian Clovis (interesting name) Kamdjo. United’s centre forward, James Constable was going to be in for a tough afternoon against that strapping pair.

After easing to victory on Tuesday night, the Bees appeared to have taken the sting out of Oxford early on in this encounter, controlling the majority of the possession. Oxford struggled to impose themselves on the game, resorting to ‘hoof-ball’ instead of their customary pass and move game under Wilder’s watchful eye. Despite Barnet’s superior ball retention though, Oxford had the first real opening. The in-form Alfie Potter tore past Barnet’s left back, Jordan Parkes before fizzing the ball across the Barnet box, only just alluding Constable. Parks rightfully took a healthy amount of stick from the raucous United fans in the East Terrace for a boy band-style floppy quiff he had clearly perfected in front of the mirror.

Twenty minutes into the game, Oxford were handed a lifeline by referee Carl Berry. A Daniel Leach deflected shot tamely dribbled past Ryan Clarke into the United net. However, Berry came to Oxford’s rescue, deciding that the ball had struck a Barnet player on the hand en route. For a League Two official, Berry had a decent match. He was not helped by his hapless linesmen, but still managed to get the most important decisions right. Ten minutes after the disallowed goal, he correctly yellow carded Oxford’s captain Jake Wright after he hauled down Izale McLeod. The home crowd demanded a red, but the towering Michael Duberry was covering in behind Wright meaning that he was not the last man.

After this scare and perhaps undeservedly, the U’s went ahead on 32 minutes. The creative Peter Leven released the nimble-footed Potter down the left who cut the ball back for Simon Heslop. Oxford’s midfielder had ample time to pick his spot and expertly placed his shot past Dean Brill in the Barnet goal. Celebrations are always that bit more wild in a terrace, as a fan has complete freedom to release their ecstatic joy. The Oxford fans danced around the East Terrace hugging each other and screaming in delight at another ‘Hesser’ wonder goal.

Five minutes later, Oxford doubled their advantage and once again, Leven was at the thick of things. His audacious chip into the path of the overlapping Liam Davis was quite superb and the left back finished with aplomb. What followed was utterly bizarre. All the Oxford fans standing at the opposite end of the ground thought that the ball had crashed into the side netting and let out a united groan. However, Davis had wheeled away in delight. Referee Berry had awarded a goal. Finally, the Oxford fans began to celebrate, everyone smiling incredulously at each other at the bizarre circumstances as they gleefully jumped around.

The second half saw the introduction of ex-Oxford youth and first team player, Sam Deering. Sadly, Deering received a negative reaction from the United faithful. Whatever Oxford supporters may think of Deering, he still played a crucial role at Wembley on that fateful day and this should not be forgotten. Clearly, the abuse from the away supporters played on Deering’s mind as he went on to have a wretched second half.

The Bees had the first real opportunity of the second half, Mark Byrne forcing a smart stop from Ryan Clarke, who had a brilliant game in the United net. Brill then matched Clarke in the Barnet goal, blocking a Constable shot with his feet after impressive wing play from Potter. United then brought on new signing, Andy Haworth who was lively and spritely straight away. However, one has to feel a degree of sympathy for Josh Payne, a player with fantastic potential and who after impressing against Dagenham on Tuesday night, must have felt bitterly disappointed at being overlooked by the debutant here.

With fifteen minutes left on the clock, Wilder brought on Whing in place of the tiring Paul McLaren, whose steady influence was again crucial to United’s success here. His last substitution saw Deane Smalley replace Constable and the former Oldham man had a golden opportunity to final open his Oxford account after being played in by Potter. However, with his confidence clearly at a low ebb, he weakly placed his shot straight at Brill.

Barnet’s captain, Mark Hughes, had a late shot that crashed against the post, thankfully denying Oxford a nervy finish. The drama was not over yet though. In the last minute, Jake Wright was rightfully given a second yellow card for a lunge on Deering by Berry. Deering’s playacting as he feigned injury on the floor, made the former Oxford man even more unpopular than ever.

What a week in the capital for Oxford, who now climb to 7th in the table and only three points off Rotherham in second.

Man of the Match: Peter Leven