Sunday, 29 August 2010

Reality Check

Enough talk of Wembley and the Tuesday night trip to Premiership opposition West Ham, this match at home to Accrington Stanley was a return to reality for Oxford United.

Accrington Stanley had brought a travelling army of 123 supporters to the Kassam, armed with a banner stuck to the back of the away end that read, ‘Stanley: the pride of Lancashire.’ This was a fitting statement, for as I read through the match day programme, I noticed that bar an Irishman, a Pole and a Yorkshire man, each and every one of the Accrington Stanley squad hailed from the North West of England, nine of whom were Liverpudlians. I remembered having watched three of them, Ray Putterill, Jimmy Ryan and Craig Lindfield in the Liverpool’s FA Youth Cup win over Manchester United in 2007. Even their manager John Coleman was a committed Lancastrian, having played for Kirby Town, Burscough, Marine, Southport, Runcorn, Macclesfield, Morecambe and Lancaster. Oh, what a glittering career. The whole Accrington Stanley set-up was a far cry from another team in Lancashire, owned by a certain Sheik Mansour. It was a refreshing change to see a squad that was made up almost entirely of local lads that played with a great togetherness and spirit. It was unlike the squad of glitzy individuals amassed by Sheik Mansour 20 miles down the county that are held in common only by a hefty pay check at the end of the week.

Back to the game, the energy and purpose that Oxford had shown at Wycombe the previous week and at Upton Park on Tuesday night had been replaced by laborious punts up into the air and wayward passing. (I have been told we played well at West Ham anyway. I unfortunately could not be at the game, as I was at visiting my girlfriend in Edinburgh. Yes, I know what you’re thinking.) The 4-3-3 formation that had proved so effective in the play-offs in promoting fast flowing attacking football, was now encouraging the long-ball game. Our tactic was very simple. As early as possible, a cross field ball was aimed in the direction of tall Jack Midson on the left wing, who in turn tried to flick it on to the tireless James Constable. It reminded me of the Ian Atkins years, where we were dogged and hard to break down, yet created very few clear-cut chances. It did not make for great viewing. I dreaded a return to those days.

Oxford could just not get a foot-hold in the match. We sorely missed the ability of a Dean Whitehead to take the game by the scruff of the neck, or the quality of an Adam Murray to dictate the proceedings. It still greatly pains me that Murray left us for rivals Luton Town for geographical reasons. For those of you not familiar with the story, it is Oxford United club policy that players must live within a commutable distance of the city. Murray was unwillingly to relocate from Derby, and as such he was released. I never knew Derby was such a wonderful place to live. I mean, the spires of Oxford or the Industrial museum of Derby?

As such, we lacked class and invention and were instead flat and one-dimensional. It was a stark contrast to the youthful Accrington Stanley, who zipped the ball about in a style of football that was attractive on the eye. Jimmy Ryan, their squat central midfield player and ex-Liverpool youth was running the show. He was the best player on display by a country mile.

Oxford were diabolically wasteful in possession. Our full-backs Anthony Tonkin and Ben Purkiss, were particularly sloppy in their distribution, while midfielders Dannie Bulman and Simon Heslop, in his awkward running style, frequently gave away missed placed passes. We failed to release dangerous winger Matt Green down the right flank in a one-on-one with their left back, while star striker Constable was frustratingly isolated. Worryingly, our new signings looked more like squad players, than those able to set a game alight. My Dad, seated next to me, summed it up by labelling out most exciting summer signing, Heslop, as ‘a carthorse.’

The only time in the game when we looked threatening was with the introduction of Alfie Potter. Fleet-footed Potter, as we saw at Wembley is a fantastic option for Chris Wilder on the bench. He is every tiring defender’s nightmare, as he is direct, quick and skilful. With ten minutes left on the clock, he left the Accrington defence for dead, ghosting three defenders before slipping the ball to Constable, who came alive for the first time in the game forcing a great save from the Accrington Stanley goalkeeper, Alex Cisak (who is unsurprisingly the one Pole in the Accrington squad that I alluded to before.)

Welcome back to reality Oxford United. The adventures of Wembley and Upton Park are behind us now. This is going to be a difficult season and a tricky league that will require much better showings that this one if we are to succeed.