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What is it with home games against Port Vale, eh? From half-way line strikes to conceding an equalizer in the 92nd minute to scoring the winner in the 93rd minute, when Oxford United and Port Vale meet at the Kassam Stadium, the neutral is rarely left unsatisfied.

Oxford went into the game today with seven points from a possible nine, with the two wins being away from home to Plymouth and top-of-the-table Gillingham. The recent upturn in form has somewhat altered the complexion of Oxford’s season. The club have been struggling in mid-table for the majority of the season, but today’s hard-earned three points has put Oxford in a position to surge towards a play-off place by the end of the season.

Alfie Potter got the scoring underway as he latched on to former U’s centre back Darren Purse’s poor backpass before opening up his body and slotting the ball cooly past Chris Neal into the far corner to make it two in two against the top two for Alfie. An excellent finish that set the tone for the remainder of the game. Despite being a superb game of football, there were countless mistakes made by both sides.

It took Port Vale just a minute to react with a Doug Loft effort from 20 yards going just wide of Oxford goalkeeper Luke McCormick’s right-hand post. But, five minutes later Loft had re-calibrated his right foot sufficiently to guide Tom Pope’s knock-down just inside that right-hand post from 25 yards for 1-1.

Vale almost took the lead in spectacular fashion as Calvin Andrew attempted an overhead kick from the penalty spot. Unfortunately for Vale fans, he is Calvin Andrew and it rolled out harmlessly for a goal kick.

Oxford themselves could have taken the lead just before half time but Sean Rigg could not direct Liam Davis’ cross on target.

As the half time whistle went, United walked off to a ripple of applause and then a chorus of boos as the matchday officials came into view. The U’s supporters clearly upset with the referee’s decision not to award a penalty for what looked a blatant push on Alfie Potter.

The Yellows came out pumped for the second half and appeared to have be suitably motivated by the coaching staff during the break. Deane Smalley continued his tireless work rate up front, Damien Batt carried on providing an option of an overlap on the right and Josh Parker even won a header. Oxford were pushing for a goal with a barrage of corners, free-kicks and throw-ins from the feet (and hands) of stand-in central midfielder Tony Capaldi. In fact, Vale left back was doing his level best to push Josh Parker with a barrage of shirt pulls, head-locks and even a UFC move that ended in the pair of the going into the referees book.

Port Vale probed and Ryan Burge saw his effort tipped onto the crossbar after Jake Wright over-played, but it was Oxford that got the winner. James Constable accelerated down the right and provided a cross that Vale’s top goal-scorer Tom Pope almost turned into his own net. From the resulting corner, the ball wasn’t cleared properly by the Vale defence and the ball fell fortunately to Deane Smalley who slammed the ball between the keeper’s legs for his fourth goal of the season and what turned out to be the winner.

Oxford pressed to make the game safe and Liam Davis burst into the box after clever play from Sean Rigg only to be tripped by Ryan Burge. This time the referee pointed to the spot and Oxford had the chance to make the game safe. Sean Rigg took responsibility in the absence of first-choice penalty taker Peter Leven. He smashed the ball hard and low to Chris Neal’s right, but the Vale stopper anticipated and saved well. It wasn’t necessarily a bad penalty, it was just a saved one.

Fortunately, the penalty miss was not to prove costly as United hung on to record their first win at home since Cheltenham Town on New Years Day.

Our first loss at home this season, and it’s come in rather comprehensive fashion. What can I really say about it? We were beaten by a team that, despite it still being only September, look real contenders to bounce straight back to League 1. Exeter looked far closer to Barcelona than that circus up the road. And I’m not talking about St. Giles’.

I know it’s a horrible process, but let’s go through the goals and work out why we lost the game. The first goal was rifled in by Jamie Cureton from a good 20-yards. Jake Wright backed off and backed off allowing Cureton the time to line-up his shot. Wright could’ve closed the man down, but the excellent run from Liam Sercombe made it was essentially a two-on-one giving Cureton the option to play the right back in. The run worked as a decoy (similar to Constable’s vs Bristol Rovers for the Potter goal). In my opinion, the blame for the goal has to go to Tony Capaldi. His poor positioning allowed the two-on-one to manifest itself and lead to the goal.

The second goal was never a corner. There is no questioning that. I, like many others, was convinced that despite my poor viewpoint in the East Stand that it didn’t cross the byline and after seeing the footage on the Football League Show, it is clear the linesman made a mistake. Our defending from the corner was poor and we allowed Scott Bennett to glance in a pretty simple second. Perhaps Ryan Clarke could have done better, but with the power on the ball it would have taken a worldie to stop it.

The third goal was a testament to the diet of Cureton. I don’t think you could name me a faster 37-year old footballer in the Football League. To be able to keep yourself in that kind of shape, especially after your gut begins to grow after you reach the big 30, is remarkable. A lovely nutmeg on Raynes and the whippersnapper was away for an experienced little dink over the onrushing Clarke. Exeter looked home and dry. The goal came about due to the high defensive line which was suicidal for a defence with Michael Raynes in it and Damian Batt was in the Exeter half so there was no cover.

We managed to get back into it after Batt was tripped in the penalty area. Forster-Caskey tucked away the penalty for 3-1 and eight minutes later JP Pittman managed to head the ball (he’s got some leap on him, by the way) against an Exeter defender for an own goal (despite it being accredited to Alfie). So 3-2 and we’re back in the game with a good 30 minutes left.

Then, on 67 minutes came the chance that could have potentially changed the match. Smalley has a free header from all of 6 yards. If it goes in, it’s 3-3 and we could go on to win the game. But he heads it over and four minutes after he missed the chance Exeter make it four. John O’Flynn with a calm finish from the right across Clarke into the bottom left-hand corner. Where was Capaldi for that goal? In the Exeter half. I’m sure you can see a slight trend with full-backs here.

Beano came on for Deano on 74′ and the number 9 received his marching orders six minutes later with two of the softest yellow cards I have ever seen. And they were only 1 minute and 5 seconds apart. The first was for, well, I’m not quite sure. And the second was for, well, I’m still not quite sure.

All three of their goals conceded from open play were because of full-backs being out of position. A startling trend. Understandable for the last two goals when we were chasing the game and pushed our full-backs forward leaving space to be exploited, but we conceded the first goal for two reasons. Firstly, Capaldi went AWOL allowing the Sercombe run to be so devastating. Secondly, no midfielder filled in the space left by Capaldi.

This highlights a real problem in Wilder’s 4-3-3 formation. If we are to play a 4-3-3 none of the front three will be tracking back, which means there is little cover for our full-backs. Now, Wilder seems to have told his full-backs to overlap, and while this can be a useful tactic (Damian Batt winning the penalty), it has its flaws. If you are to play those attacking full-backs, a midfielder must fill in at full-back when Batt/Capaldi are overlapping. Simon Heslop didn’t once attempt to fill in today. Is that because Wilder didn’t mention it or because he was lazy? That I cannot tell you. But what I can tell you is to be so tactically inept in a position such as centre midfield makes me question his future in an Oxford shirt.

When Wilder went 4-2-4, as he so often does when chasing a game, there was one less midfielder in our midfield meaning not only was there less creativity, but also less defensive cover. The 4-2-4 sounds far more dangerous than it really is. Like a barking dog with no teeth. When you play four strikers, it means you will play one of two ways. You will either try and play it through the middle of the park with two midfielders and potentially get swamped by their four midfielders, or you will lump it to one of our four strikers. The latter is the most likely option, but when played it means we bypass the creativity in midfield. Our strikers are relatively average in stature. We’ve got no Kevin Francis type player that will win everything in the air. So, the 4-2-4 is actually an awful tactic when chasing a game if your team happens to be Oxford United.

We’ve got to pick ourselves up and dust ourselves down for the next two games against Burton away and Cheltenham away. If we turn up as the same side that did against Bristol Rovers, Southend and Swindon, they look eminently winnable. Let’s not let this little blip ruin what was an excellent start. Come on you Yellows!

The phrase ‘emotional roller-coaster’ is one of the most over-used clichés in our sport, but it is one that best describes Oxford United’s 2011/12 season. We’ve seen some wonderful highs this year and some pretty awful lows.

The biggest high was arguably doing the double against bitter-rivals Swindon Town. James Constable was heavily involved in both games. He scored both goals in the 2-1 win at The County Ground making Oxford the only team to win at the Wiltshire club this season. The goals were made even sweeter due to Swindon Manager Paolo Di Canio’s comments pre-game where he labelled Constable a “Swindon fan,” so when the reverse fixture came around, tensions were high. And clearly too high for Constable as he got sent off after ten minutes for an alleged elbow.

A man down with 80 minutes left against the league leaders, you wouldn’t have blamed Oxford for losing. Despite the ten men, Oxford managed to steal the lead in the 16th minute when Asa Hall bundled the ball in from a Lee Holmes free-kick. Then two minutes later it was Lee Holmes with an assist again, this time for Oli Johnson to slide in. 2-0 up with ten men! There was utter delirium in the stands. I ended up five rows down from where I started. The remaining 72 minutes were the best defensive performance I have ever witnessed. Andy Whing, Anthony Tonkin and Michael Duberry. All lions. Every shot was charged down. Every pass was intercepted. Every tackle was made. When the final whistle finally went, you could have mistaken it for a third goal. Despite only four shots to Swindon’s twenty and ten men to Swindon’s eleven, Oxford managed to come out of the game with the three points.

Another moment this season will be remembered for again took place at the Kassam Stadium – arguably the greatest goal Peter Leven has ever scored, arguably the greatest goal ever seen at the stadium. It was Oxford vs Port Vale and the score was 1-1 with 25 minutes to go. Port Vale had just equalised through Mark Richards and Port Vale were cranking up the pressure on the Oxford goal. But up stepped Leven. It was all the Scot’s work, as he intercepted a pass from a Vale midfielder, before lobbing it over the keeper from just inside the opposition half. When the ball hit the net there was utter pandemonium around me, but as the realisation of what Leven had just done crept in, people began to look around quietly with mouths open and with incredulity in their expressions. The best goal I have ever witnessed live at a football match in my 18 years on this planet.

Another real positive has been the turnaround in fortunes of Andy Whing. He was subjected to the boo boys as early as 13th August due to being scapegoated after the 1-1 draw at home to Bradford City. The boo-boys grew louder after another 1-1 home draw, this time against 10-man Aldershot Town. Whing had always been selected as a right back at his former clubs, but managr Chris Wilder saw he was getting caught for pace and deployed him to sit in front of the back four as a defensive anchor man.

It was a masterstroke from Wilder as Whing’s performance and confidence improved. Soon he was putting in man-of-the-match performances, most notably against Macclesfield at home where he was imperious in the midfield making a number of excellent tackles. Amazingly, the same supporters who were booing him at the start of the season were now singing ‘all we want is a team of Andy Whings!’The comeback was complete as he was given the Andrew Knapton Supporter’s Player of the Year award as voted by the Oxford United supporters.

But along with the highs, we’ve had some lows. Dropping out of the play-offs despite being sat in the top seven since August was a bitter pill to take for many Oxford supporters. The way the season seemed to finish at the end of March for many of our players was odd. We did not win a single game from our last seven and picked up only two points in the process. Some supporters blamed a lack of fitness, while others blamed the influx of loan players. I believe it’s a combination of both. A damning statistic was that 16 different attackers were used this season. Wilder must learn from his mistakes next season and not on loanees, but players under contract.

Another low was the number 10 signed from Oldham in the summer, Deane Smalley. Oxford had to pay compensation to Oldham as he was under the age of 24 and it was thought to be in the region for £50,000. The forward had an excellent season on loan to League Two Champions Chesterfield in the 2010/11 season scoring 12 goals in 28 games, but this season was nowhere near to what was expected.

Two goals in 26 appearances in all competitions was what Smalley managed. Perhaps too much was expected of 23-year old Deane, he was expected to challenge James Constable in the club scoring charts, despite  having a one in ten goals to appearances record at Oldham. After all, his natural position is not centre forward, it is on the right wing. In January, he was loaned out to Bradford City with similar success – 13 appearances, 0 goals. Many Oxford supporters want the club to sell him this summer, but Wilder has kept faith in his future at the club going into next season saying “The boy wants to come back, we’ve kept in contact with him and he knows he’s not done himself justice.” Let’s hope that Smalley can show the same quality he did for Chesterfield in 2010/11.

Oxford under-achieved this season – 9th place is not good enough. But he has progressed in terms of league position every season he has been in charge of this football club without fail. Although if progression into the play-off positions is not achieved next season, it may well turn out to be Wilder’s final one in charge of Oxford United.

On Saturday the 3rd of March at 12pm, Oxford United will take on Swindon Town at the Kassam Stadium in the imaginatively named “A420 derby.” The derby between the two sides has been fierce since the early 1980′s. The rivalry intensified due to the regularity of meeting between the sides and the geographical proximity throughout the decade. Swindon fans’ vandalism of Oxford’s stadium means there is absolutely no love lost between the two sides. They painted the bronze Ox outside the Kassam in Swindon colours (Oxford then used it to promote Cancer Month) as well as burning “STFC” into Oxford’s pitch before the game last August.

The league history is overwhelmingly in favour in terms of Swindon Town with 23 wins and 81 goals scored to Oxford’s 11 wins and 57 goals scored. There have also been 20 draws between the sides over the years.

Oxford have never faced Swindon in the league at the Kassam Stadium. The only time they have played each other at the Kassam was in the 2nd Round of the FA Cup in December 2002. The score was 1-0. Controversial striker Jefferson Louis scored the winner that day to send The U’s faithful into utter delirium. The goal, in truth, was a fluke. Louis’ flick on went straight in after Steve Basham’s run bamboozled Bart Griemink in front of the Oxford Mail Stand. Louis’ celebrations post-match have to be seen to be believed as he ran round the home changing room naked after Oxford were drawn against Arsenal at Highbury in the next round.

That was then. This is now. I, as an Oxford fan, am not confident going into Saturday’s game. Oxford’s current form has been sketchy of late with 9 points from a possible 15 in their last five games and a disappointing 1-1 draw with Macclesfield at home last weekend and sit 7th. Macclesfield had lost 8 straight away games before that game. Swindon, on the other hand, have won 9 games on the trot and have seen the Wiltshire club move from 7th to 1st since just after Christmas. Paolo Di Canio, who has divided opinion, appears to be working his magic with the side after spending big in January signing Paul Benson, Luke Rooney and Lee Cox as well as Ronan Murray and Derek Boating on loan from Ipswich and Arsenal respectively.

They also failed in signing Oxford’s top goalscorer, James Constable. Known to Oxford fans as “Beano” – a nickname given to him in his younger years due to his alleged likeness to the Heinz product. Oxford accepted a bid, but Constable decided against even travelling up, re-affirming his legend status at the club. The Yellows number nine decided the game the last time the two teams met back in August 2011 with a brace helping Oxford win 2-1 at the County Ground. This followed comments from Di Canio claiming that he was a Swindon fan. Constable does in fact support Tottenham and after the embarrassing error, Di Canio backtracked in the post-match press conference citing having “wrong information”.

Oxford’s key man for the game this Saturday would have been Peter Leven. He’s scored a halfway line winner against Port Vale, a brilliant free-kick against Cheltenham from 30-odd yards as well as a curling effort against Plymouth from the corner of the 18 yard box to name a few. If the Oxford faithful are to be believed, Peter Leven does what he wants. But Peter Leven cannot guard against injury. He’ll miss the game with a shoulder injury. A massive blow for Oxford. Simon Heslop is fighting to be fit, but if he doesn’t recover in time, Wilder will have to choose between Mark Wilson, Asa Hall and Adam Chapman to partner the tireless Andy Whing and Lee Holmes in a midfield three.

The possible inclusion of Chapman is an interesting one. He was Man of the Match in Conference Play-Off Final in 2010. Oxford won that game 3-1 to end their four year absence from the Football League. But the midfielder’s promising career was thrown into turmoil after he was jailed for causing the death of 77-year old Tom Bryan by dangerous driving. Since his release in September, he has had an injury plagued 6 months. Earlier on this week, Chapman was recalled from an impressive monthly loan spell at Newport. Now he’s got his match sharpness back, he could be Oxford’s secret weapon against Swindon. Oxford lack a free-kick taker with Leven’s unavailability and Chapman looks the perfect replacement for Leven in terms of dead-ball delivery.

For a side that went 22 games without a clean sheet last season, Oxford have had 11 clean sheets this term which puts them fifth in the clean sheet table. Swindon are first with 15. This is a marked improvement and we have to look at who Wilder has brought into the defence. Former Chelsea and Leeds centre-back Michael Duberry divided fans opinion when he arrived in the summer from St. Johnstone. His apparent lack of pace worried some fans, but his commanding presence has given the Oxford back line confidence this season. When he was injured in November, Oxford lost every game which shows his importance to the side. He has hit a purple patch with four goals in his last four games. The only problem is that three of them have been in his own goal. That includes what he dubbed on Twitter as the “Imperfect Hat-trick”. Left foot (OG), Header (OG), Right Foot. Despite this, Duberry remains a cult hero at the Kassam. I doubt many other players could get away with scoring so many own goals in a debut season and still be loved by the fans of a club.

Oxford usually play a 4-3-3, but played 4-4-2 at times last week. The weakness in the 4-3-3 formation is that it is susceptible to attacks down the wings. Swindon’s key man will be their left winger, Matt Ritchie. The former Portsmouth player moved to Swindon in the summer and has scored 10 goals and managed 10 assists making a case for League 2′s player of the season. Oxford will need to change to a 4-5-1 when not in possession with the wingers tracking the Swindon full backs. It is extremely important for Oxford to have a midfielder move across and help cover the full back to help nullify Ritchie’s threat to the Oxford defence.

As an Oxford fan, a loss would be devastating for the fans. The fact of the matter is, Swindon are a better side. There is a reason they are sat at the top of the league. On paper Swindon should win, but derby games never stick to the script. 1973 was the last time Oxford won at the County Ground and the only season we’ve done the double over the Robins. We broke that 38 year record for not winning in Wiltshere earlier on this season. Can we achieve a famous double?

My First Game

Posted: February 7, 2012 in Retro Oxford United

Oxford vs Bury. 10th August 2002. Nationwide Division 3.The opening day fixture from the 2002/2003 season and the atmosphere was uneasy. I, of course, would not have known this being an eight year old going to my first football match with a classmate and his dad. I was blissfully unaware. The reason for the air of anxiety around the ground was because of last season’s efforts. Oxford had been in the bottom division of the Football League for the first time in over 30 years. And they under-achieved. 21st was not good enough. It had cost Oxfordshire-born and former Derby County and Liverpool player Mark Wright his job in charge. In came Ian Atkins. He kept Oxford in the Football League, albeit by limping over the line. Atkins had all summer to rebuild his new side. He brought exciting players in Scott McNiven, James Hunt and Matthew Robinson among others to join an already decent line-up with stars such as Chris Hackett, Dean Whitehead and Steve Basham.

So, going into the Bury game, Oxford fans were waiting with baited breath if Adkins had done the correct business. Were these new signings going to gel? And despite a shaky start to the game with missed chances for Bury’s Pawel Abott, Oxford managed to grab the opening goal. It was a jinky run from Manny Omoyinmi and he completely bamboozled Lee Unsworth who, somewhat inadvertently, flicked the ball with his hand. Was that a penalty? There were shouts from all around my relatively conservative stand point in the South Stand. The referee was running towards the box pointing at the spot. He’d given it. There appeared to be some argument over who wanted to take it. Not too dissimilar to my eight-year old self’s usual playground antics. I always wanted to take penalties. I liked scoring goals. But finally the big centre back with short sleeves and a captains armband grasped the ball and placed it firmly on the spot. I heard someone mutter “Crosby’ll smash this”. Some pessimist said “He’s going to miss it”. The ‘keeper was doing all manner of actions to put him off. Flapping his hands and waving them over his head as well as jumping up and down on the goal line. Up stepped the lumbering Crosby. A beautiful moment of absolute silence as he struck through the ball. I heard the “thwack” from Crosby’s right boot. I heard the sound of the ball hit the net. And a deafening roar from behind me. I hugged my classmate’s dad. My classmate didn’t seem too interested. He wasn’t the football breed. And that horrible anxiety at the start of the game had disappeared.

We’d just sat down and two minutes later we were back up again. Whitehead played a beautiful ball splitting the Bury defence wide open and with Omoyinmi’s pace, he was away. He slotted it past the Bury keeper and the scoreline read 2-0. Happy Days! When I went back to the playground on Monday morning, I wouldn’t be Beckham or Owen or even Scholes. I’d be Omoyinmi. He was my idol. Shame I couldn’t say his surname, so I settled with calling him “Manny.” As an eight year old, I didn’t appreciate Dean Whitehead’s role in the team. An assist and an all-action performance. He was just tireless. Never stopped running. But it was Manny who I’d remember. Later on, Manny had another chance where he should have squared it to Oldfield to make it 3, but fluffed the opportunity. Half time came and went. The announcer told us that Oxford were now sitting pretty at the top of the Nationwide Division 3. There were smiles and handshakes all around me. Happy punters finally getting to see an Oxford United team that were challenging for promotion.

I don’t remember much else from the game apart from the Bury goal. It was a sweet strike from just inside 25 yards. Top corner. It hushed us. You could hear a pin drop. That anxiety that was there at the start of the game was back. And it wasn’t nice. Apart from my classmate. He jumped up and screamed. You’d of thought it was Oxford who had scored. As I mentioned earlier, I don’t think he was a football person. He realised his error as hundreds of eyes bore into him and sat down rather sheepishly. “I thought it was the final whistle” was his explanation. But luckily for us and for him, the goal was too late for Bury to have enough time to have a real clear-cut chance for the equaliser. Soon enough the final whistle blew, and my first football match had ended. 2-1 win to those boys that used to come from up the hill.

So there you have it, my first football match. Oxford carried on strongly that season and were in the automatic places for most of it, until dropping down to 8th in the final few months and thus missing out on the play-offs by a place and a point to, wait for it, Bury. Maybe if we had have made the play-offs that year we might have been promoted and never got relegated to the Conference in 2006. What if?