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 The feel-good factor that surrounded the club at the beginning of the season has been replaced by a  gloomy pessimism.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?